In 2010, Ken Follett published “Fall of Giants,” the opening movement of his vast, dauntingly ambitious “Century Trilogy.” In the course of that 1,000-page epic, Follett introduced readers to five families from a variety of countries — England, Wales, Russia, Germany, the United States — and used their lives to illuminate the events of the early 20th century. Those stories encompassed the struggle for women’s suffrage; the increasingly bitter relations between the working class and an entrenched aristocracy; the origins of the 1917 Russian Revolution; and, most centrally, the carnage of World War I, a catastrophic conflict that claimed more than 15 million lives.
“Fall of Giants” ended in early 1924, with a defeated Germany collapsing beneath the effects of runaway inflation and the demands of the Treaty of Versailles, a combination that paved the way for the rise of National Socialism and the advent of Adolf Hitler. “Winter of the World,” the equally massive second volume of the trilogy, opens in the critical year of 1933. Against the backdrop of a worldwide Depression that has resulted in widespread unemployment, Hitler and his party assume complete control over Germany. Wasting no time, Follett launches into a vivid — and disturbing — account of the methods by which Hitler and his brownshirts consolidate their power: destroying newspaper offices, brutalizing political opponents and ignoring traditional parliamentary procedures, all the while exploiting a streak of virulent anti-Semitism.
Virtually all the major characters from “Fall of Giants” reappear in the new book. Most of them now take on supporting roles, while their children move to the forefront of a complex set of intersecting narratives. Among the central figures in this densely populated novel — Follett’s useful list of principal characters runs to more than four pages — are Daisy Peshkov, socially ambitious daughter of a Russian gangster; Lloyd Williams, left-leaning son of a British peer and a former Welsh housekeeper; Chuck and Woody Dewar, the very different descendants of a powerful American political family; and Carla von Ulrich, idealistic daughter of a German father and an aristocratic British mother. These and many other characters carry the story forward through 16 years and a multitude of varied locales.
“Winter of the World” dramatizes the major ideological conflicts that marked the first half of a turbulent century, moving from Germany under the Third Reich to the battlegrounds of the Spanish Civil War to the Russia of Joseph Stalin, where the revolutionary government has grown increasingly repressive and corrupt. But the real centerpiece of the narrative, a sustained sequence that occupies fully two-thirds of its considerable length, is Follett’s chronological, highly selective re-creation of World War II.
Long as “Winter of the World” is, it seems barely long enough to cover the vast array of historical material at its center and is much sketchier than Herman Wouk’s treatment of the same subject in “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Follett, by contrast, is relatively uninterested in military detail and makes no real attempt to describe every major campaign. He does offer some unique perspectives on certain key events — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, the London Blitz, the invasion of Normandy — but he is content, for the most part, to move his characters quickly from one significant location to another, juxtaposing their often messy personal lives with a constantly shifting historical framework. Most of the war in the Pacific, including the battle for Guadalcanal, exists here only in passing references, while the Holocaust, a subject that Wouk addressed in harrowing detail, is largely the subject of horrific but unsubstantiated rumor.
In several sections of the novel, Follett returns to his roots as a thriller writer, focusing on the role that espionage played in the conduct of the war. One major protagonist, Volodya Peshkov, is a Russian military intelligence officer who assembles a network of spies that extends from Berlin to Los Alamos, N.M., in pursuit of information on the construction of the atomic bomb. Follett takes us into the early years of the postwar world, ending his narrative in 1949, setting the stage for the Cold War era that is about to begin.
Follett is an efficient, rather than elegant, stylist. His characters “wait on tenterhooks” for events to unfold and drift through romantic encounters “in a cloud of happiness.” Although there is nothing egregious in these examples, they do reflect an overall reliance on plain, unevocative language. Follett’s real gifts are those of a natural storyteller: swift, cinematic pacing, the ability to juggle multiple narratives coherently, and an eye for the telling detail. The result, as in “Fall of Giants,” is an honorable piece of popular entertainment and a consistently compelling portrait of a world in crisis.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
WINTER OF THE WORLD
By Ken Follett
Dutton. 940 pp. $36