Fall of Giants by Ken Follett is a historical novel following several characters in the years leading up to and during the first world war, paying close attention to Britain’s women’s suffrage movement, and the Bolshevik revolution.
As per usual the summary will contain spoilers, skip on down to the review if you don’t want them.
The novel has several different sets of characters going through their own plots independently of one another to give a fuller view of how World War I affected different people in different countries and classes. The story centers around the home of Earl Fitzherbert, the mining town on his land, and various people of who are loosely connected to him.
In the town there is Billy Williams, know by his friends as Billy Twice. He lives with his father, a union leader for the miners, and sister Ethel Williams, and other members of the family. He goes to work in the mines at a young age and watches his father work with the men of the town to get better treatment for the workers. Once war breaks out Billy goes away to war along with many others from the mining town as life as a soldier on the front lines is considerably less dangerous than the life of a miner, and pays much better. Towards the end of the war Billy’s unit gets sent to Russia to protect the financial interest of the elite form England in a legally ambiguous mission. He sends home coded letters telling his girlfriend and sister about the mission in an attempt to gain awareness for the illegal activity they are doing in Russia, hoping that his unit will be sent home. Unfortunately the Earl Fitzherbert who commands the soldiers stationed in Russia has a bone to pick with Billy, who has a habit of standing up to him, and gets him sentenced to years in a labor camp for leaking military secrets. It’s not until a year or more later that a newspaper associated with his sister Ethel makes a real fuss about his imprisonment that Billy returns home.
Ethel Williams works in a high position on the Earl’s staff, and gets involved in a secret affair with him. Unfortunately at the same time that the Earl’s wife Bea gets pregnant, so does Ethel, and she’s sent away to avoid causing Bea any stress. Ethel, having watched her father negotiate for years is able to negotiate terms in which the Earl will pay for a house for her in London, where she can make money from letting people board there. She leaves for London telling no one, as part of their agreement. She starts working, sewing uniforms, and in her free time gets involved in the women’s suffrage movement along with the labor party. She makes friends with the Earl’s sister Lady Maud, who is also a suffragette who is working out of London to try to get their demands met. Ethel has her baby, and goes to work for various social movements. She marries an awkward labor party member and people’s advocate Bernie (I kept imagining it being Bernie Sanders and would start giggling uncontrollably whenever his name came up, not so great when reading in public.)After the war, and women have won the vote and the ability to run for office she is voted into a government position as the labor party controls the government.
Bea is from Russia, and made a big impact on Grigori, and his brother Lev. She was part of the ruling class when Russia was starving. The brother’s father was hanged for grazing animals on her land, and their mother was shot protesting the ruling family. Grigori works in a factory with his brother when things first start out, he attends regular meetings of the socialist party, and is well educated on political matters despite his position in life. He meets and falls in love with a girl Katerina, but she falls for his younger brother Lev. Grigori has been planning to move to America as soon as he has enough money and work for the Vyalov family who run several businesses in America. Lev gets caught up in a bad situation and gets accused of murder, and Grigori gives Lev is ticket and money to go to america so that he can get away. Unfortunately Katerina is pregnant with Lev’s baby, and is left behind with Grigori. Grigori is called into active duty once Russia enters the war, before he leaves though, Katerina marries him so that she can get the government support of being a soldiers wife. Once he returns home from his time away, Grigori joins his friends in the socialists movement and helps to create a soviet where workers will have greater say in the government. He rubs shoulders with men such as Trotsky and Lenin, and once their government comes to power has a position in the government as a representative for his home town. However he has many misgivings about the government, feeling that they have just replaced the ruling class the outed without improving much, especially as he sees corrupt people taking power and cruel practices being adopted.
Lev on the other hand, takes a boat expecting to come to america, but is left in wales instead by a less than honorable captain. He works there in the mines for a while, but eventually makes it to america, and through some coincidence meets up with Josef Vyalov, who after beating him, offers him a job as his driver. Through working for Josef, Lev gets close to his daughter Olga, and one thing leads to another, she gets pregnant, and Josef forces them to get married. At this point Lev is also given a better position running several of Josef’s clubs, happily cheating on his wife the whole way. Josef finds out about this and sends Lev to war. Lev gets put with a unit going into Russia as a translator, and actually works closely with Billy’s unit. When Lev comes back to america after the war, Prohibition has just taken effect and is running the Vyalov family out of business. Lev accidentally kills a weak Josef when Josef finds out that Lev has been cheating on his daughter again, and Lev is forced to flee to Canada. While in his short time out of the country Lev discovers cheap Canadian liquor, and a way out of his problems. He goes back and convinces Olga to cover up what has happened in exchange for him saving their family’s business.
Back in Europe, we have Muad Fitzherbert, sister to the Earl, who has fallen madly in love with Walter von Ulrich, son to a German diplomat before the war broke out. They see the war coming, and marry in secret before it all goes down, sending each other secret love letters during the extent of the war. Walter is opposed to the war, but has to go along with what his father wants. After the war Maud moves to Germany with Walter, whose career is over due to his marriage to an English woman. Maud has to go to work as a piano player in a shady bar as the German economy tanks after the war. She and Walter watch in horror as Hitler rises to popularity in the economic crisis.
There are several other small story lines, that interweave, but these are the major ones.
I normally don’t go for historical novels, but I really enjoyed this one. I thought that Ken Follett did a great job showing the war from the different perspectives of people from each country. This book also did an incredible job showing a wide range of classes and situations and how the world war effected everyone differently. I will never know exactly how if felt to live in any of these areas at this time of crisis, but I thought that the expected fear and uncertainty, as well as the dissatisfaction that the people around the globe held for the upper classes was brought out very well in the book.
There was very little graphic content, sexual or gory. The plot was slow to start, but I thought that it was a good reflection of how people could see the war coming, though it took a while to build up.
I would definitely recommend this book, and look forward to reading the rest of the books in the trilogy.