Fall of Giants, published 2010, has a power that gripped me from the very first page. Beginning in the early years of the 20th century in the dark, dirty and dangerous coal mines of Wales, radiating out through a web of interconnected families to tell the story of the Red Revolution in Russia, the First World War and the Depression in the United States, it set a standard that left me craving its follow up Winter of the World while fearing that it could not live up to its predecessor. The wait was worth it and I needn’t have worried.
I think to appreciate Winter of the World fully you would need to have read Fall of Giants. In that we were introduced to a small group of families – the Peshkovs, the Von Ulrichs, the Williamses, the Dewars and the Fitzherberts – as well as a host of real historical figures – both poor and rich, powerful and oppressed, who loved, fought and hated, while managing to stamp their mark on history despite the ferocity of events that swept across Britain, Europe, the United States and Russia during the first three decades of the 20th century. We meet some of the same familiar characters in Winter of the World but now it is mostly the turn of their offspring. Not all of them are aware of the skeletons in the closets, and there are an awful lot of those, but the history they have to face is every bit as tough as that endured by their parents – even more so. Ken Follett here turns his attention to such monsters from the 1930s and 1940s as Hitler and Stalin, Fascism and Communism, covering the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Nuclear Weapons Race and the beginnings of the Cold War. Some of the story takes place in the pompous drawing rooms and government offices of the United States (as well as Pearl Harbor) but the focus here is on Europe through its darkest days and we watch events from both sides of the curtain.
There are set pieces that are utterly compelling, such as the Blitz and the Russian liberation of Berlin, while there are other moments that are truly gut wrenching. There’s little here to choose between the evil of the Nazi and Stalinist oppressors. On top of that we have American gangsters, glamorous actresses, British lords and ladies and many individuals committed to a cause. Quite a few of them are prepared to put their lives at great risk in order to end tyranny. This is a strong theme that continues from Fall of Giants – despite the terrible horror there is much hope here due to the idealism that so many characters are prepared to die for. Unfortunately, too many of them have to do just that.
There are lots of characters and as the chapters jump about from one to another and back again there is not one you will be tired of. I was grateful for the essential dramatis personae at the beginning. Some of the characters stand out – for me Carla von Ulrich, Lloyd Williams and Volodya Peshkov were especially strong but it was also good to spend more time with Maud von Ulrich, Lev Peshkov and Gus Dewar from Fall of Giants. Ken Follett is a master of breathing life into his characters, you only have to have read The Pillars of the Earth to know that. His secret here is mixing great characterisation with compelling highlights, told in the most accessible but meaningful manner, from some of the most remarkable events from 20th-century history. It is a fantastic mix and Follett pulls it off perfectly.
My one and only complaint about Winter of the World is its depiction of some of the female characters, especially Daisy Peshkov, Jacky Jakes and Zoya Vorotsyntsez. These women to me were often only alive as seen through male eyes and their bodies sexualised to a degree I wasn’t comfortable with. I also found this clunky. A minor irritation.
This trilogy is a grand trilogy. Winter of the World is another long book but how I loved it and how sorry I was to finish it. This was not one of those long books that makes one feel relief when it ends. Far from it. It covers great themes and history, plus huge emotions and life itself. It could not be shorter and I loved the luxury of its length and the time I could spend lost within it. I wonder how the third book will manage, standing beside the previous two, when it has no more world wars to bring thrills to its pages but I do not doubt the ability of this master storyteller.