Graeme's Reviews > Fall of Giants

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
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Jun 10, 2011

it was ok
Read in June, 2011

The story was enjoyable enough and certainly kept me entertained for a couple of days. The recreation of the early 20th Century was very vivid, and I was impressed by how well Follett applied his considerable skills in this respect to a variety of nations and social classes. To cover so many years in any decent amount of depth was a great challenge, to which Follett rises well. The story was fast-paced and the build-up to the War was particularly well managed. The particularly notable aspect of Follett's storytelling is that he manages to weave together a great many themes in one fluid story: the First World War; political reform in Britain; social upheaval in Russia and the development of the United States as a significant world power. This was well executed and allowed a free-floing narrative to become established. Given that long periods of time could elapse between two appearances of each character, anticipation builds significantly over the course of the story and it is interesting to see how each character's situation has developed over days, months or even years. Nevertheless, there are some problems with the book, mainly in characterisation and in the relations between the characters in the story.

Rather than allow the characters to be merely players on a bigger stage, Follett insists on engineering direct connections between them, no matter how unlikely the circumstances. Many of the meetings and sightings between characters, particularly during the War, are highly contrived. For instance not once, but twice, two characters, one German, one English, are posted directly opposite each other in the trenches: convenient, given that they are old school friends. While this did allow a reunion over the Truce of Christmas 1914, enabling Follett to detail this interesting occurrence and add some emotional depth to the section, the second time it happens seems rather less well considered and seems to stretch the boundaries of belief. In another instance, the same German is noticed by an American soldier who believes he 'may have known him before the War'. Again, the sighting seems somewhat heavily contrived and does not add much in the way of emotion or character development. There are many occurrences like this within the book, and the more there are, the less easy they are to accept. It is a shame, as this does somewhat derail the narrative and as a result I could never quite find myself immersed in the story. One can't help but feel that the narrative my have been served better if Follett had not deliberately created links between so many characters, rather allowing more to progress through the story unnoticed by the others.

Characterisation did also become a problem. For example, Earl Fitzherbert begins the story as very much a product of his time: a Conservative peer with a revulsion towards reform. However, he is not an unplesant person and, despite his infidelities, generally comes across reasonably well. When he reaches the War his natural gallantry and sense of honour come to the fore when he is forced to battle against the wills of stubborn senior officers in order to persuade the BEF to put up stauncher resistance against the Germans. Unfortunately, after this he becomes rather more of a charicature, almost becoming a pantomime villain towards the end. He becomes the typical 'donkey' officer, so beloved of mainstream history and so clear in the modern public imagination.

Indeed, this is a problem with the recreation of the War throughout the book. Follett's is a modern, mainstream interpretation, mainly based on the thoughts of anti-war poets from the trenches and is firmly rooted modern perceptions. Much recent history on the period has demonstrated the gallantry of officers, as well as the numerous new tactics implemented by British high command in order to win the War: Follett prefers to rely on the popular imagining of waves of brave privates and NCOs being thrown repeatedly against barbed wire and machine guns while the officers sat safe in the dugouts. Such interpretations are not true. By the end of the War, the same officers, notably the much-maligned Douglas Haig, had turned a loose bunch of several million conscripts and volunteers into an extremely efficient military machine: no mean feat when one considers that the pre-War British army was only around 100,000 men at its height. Even during the peak of the Peninsular War and Waterloo campaign the army only reached the dizzying heights of 150,000 men. Moreover, Follett seems to create an anti-war feeling throughout the lower classes, with only the upper classes in all the countries in the book showing support for the War. This is certainly untrue and there is plenty of poetry from front-line troops who enjoyed their War and believed wholeheartedly in their purpose. I don't deny that there was anti-war feeling, but I do feel that Follett's interpretation is somewhat misleading in suggesting how widespread it was. The novel also seems to suggest that German support for the War extended no further than the upper classes and the diplomatic service: this is, again, disingenuous. I am no expert on the matter, but for a very convincing argument, Gordon Corrigan's 'Mud, Blood and Poppycock' is an essential counterpoint to many modern assumptions.

Finally, the rapidity and ease with which the characters seemed to fall in love with each other became tedious. Every time it led to some rather stilted love scenes which broke the flow of the narrative. Furthermore, the relationships seemed reasonably unimportant and did not deserve as prominent a place in the overall story as they seemed to receive. The numerous times when characters declared their undying love for each other, or fell in love after the briefest of associations became irritating rather than engendering any emotional response to the situation.

That said, I would recommend the book as it was an entertaining story and Follett's attention to historical detail is highly admirable, making it an enjoyable story. I look forward to the rest of the trilogy and my only hope is that the later characters might be more deserving of a response from the reader.

EDIT: On reflection I'm not sure I would recommend this book. Since I wrote the review the sequel has come out and I haven't even thought about picking it up. It's a shame, because I had heard good things of him, and will probably still try Pillars of the Earth (which has sat on my shelf for far too long).
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Debby I better get in some more reading! Can't wait to read so many books including this one. I think World Without End will be my next one!

Carl World Without End is wonderful! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Carl Thank you for this in depth review. It is much appreciated.

Linda C OK, so I'm curious-- you wrote a relatively favorable review (much more favorable than mine, I might add), yet only gave two stars. What was your rational on the stars? Two stars, for me, indicates a pretty bad book. I gave three stars and I didn't even like it much. You seemed to like it, but was stingy with stars. So... what was your thought process?

Elsie Thank you for putting so much thought and time into your review. I agree with you completely and definitely could not have said it better myself.

Trevor Denyer An excellent review. Upon reflection, this review sums up the strengths and weaknesses of this novel admirably.

Graeme Ah, I have somehow not seen any of these. Thank you all for the comments.

Linda, I think that when I was writing this I still wanted to like the book, so my review came off as fairly positive (after all, for all my criticism, I'm not sure I could write a better book). However, I find five star ratings a bit tricky to get right, and I have rated books on here as four stars which I have really rather enjoyed. It's probably not one I would recommend to friends, nor am I particularly fussed about reading the rest of the trilogy, but at the same time it was not the worst book I have ever read. Hope that makes sense.

Jane Boice please do pick up Pillars of the Earth. I would look forward to your review of that as well as World without End.

message 9: by Jessica (new)

Jessica My love of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End made my expectations for Fall of Giants too high and I am having trouble even finishing the book. I wanted more from it. I am not emotionally invested in the characters.

Alexis PLEASE reada Pillars! I love Ken Follett's work, and he is at his best with Pillars..

Marcus Elwes A very good review which I agree with in all respects.

KyneWynn I agree with you on nearly every point. I did read Pillars of the Earth first - which is why I picked up this one. I liked Pillars far better than Fallen Giants - I am debating whether or not to read the next two books myself. (I probably will, simply because Follet does an amazing job with weaving his historical research into his novels -- and I love history.) Thank you for your review.

Dagny 2 stars means ok, 3 is good

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