One of the reasons that I love historical fiction is that, when well researched and written, it allows me to learn something without actually have to read a history book. I guarantee that reading the Little House books by Laura Ingals Wilder in elementary school taught me more about pioneer life than anything in my social studies book. Same with Tudor England-almost anything I know about Henry VIII, his wives, and the various Thomases in his life is the result of the many, many fictional narratives I have read through the years. It may not be "hard, academic" fact, but then is any history hard academic fact? After all, it tends to be written by the victors, as they say.
Ken Follet is the master of the sweeping historical novel. In Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, he showed us the world of 12th and 13th century England in detail both large and small. World events intermingle with the day to day lives of the people to create a rich tapestry of story and feeling. As such, I picked up the audiobook of Fall of Giants knowing that I was going to get a great story with interesting characters, and that I would learn an awful lot in the process. (Plus, it is 30 hours long-30 HOURS! Talk about getting your money's worth for an audiobook)
Fall of Giants tells the story of World War I through the eyes of characters from various places in the social and political hierarchies. There is Lord Fitzherbert, a wealthy aristocrat and his sister Maud, a feminist and suffragist. There is Ethel, Fitzherbert's maid, and her brother Billy, who enters the coal mines at age 13. In Russia we have Grigori and Lev Peshkov, brothers who are trying to escape the tyranny of the czar and find a better life in America. There is the German Walter Von Ulrich, a friend of Fitz's from school, and Gus Dewar, an American working in Wilson's White House. As the characters wend their way through events great and small, connections are made and people are drawn into situations both triumphant and tragic.
Follett obviously researched his little heart out for this book, which comes in at a staggering 985 pages. As in his other books, he related important world events through the eyes of his major characters, of whom there are many. And as usual, he created compelling personal stories for each character, heroes and villains alike. He uses Earl Fitzherbert to show the conservatism and entrenched sense of privilege in the English noble class. He uses Maud and Ethel to showcase the cause of first wave feminism and the suffrage movement. Grigori and Lev live in a Russia that is cruel and repressive-and about to change the course of the world through the Bolshevik Revolution. Gus Dewar represents the rising power of the United States in world affairs. And Walter Von Ulrich is anything but a villain, though he is the "enemy"-he is handled with the most nuanced care by Follett, representing a younger, more progressive Germany fighting against the old guard in the cause of peace, even as he fights as a soldier on the front lines.
If that sounds like a lot to keep up with, it is. And this is supposed to be just the first in a trilogy! There is enough information in this book to make a trilogy of its own. And that length is my only complaint. I am not afraid of lengthy books-Under the Dome by Stephen King was one of my favorites last year-but the sheer amount of detail in this novel is at times slightly overwhelming. While the personal stories of the characters are fairly easy to keep straight, I sometimes found my mind drifting through the the pages and pages of minute detail about specific battles and political machinations. In fact, listening to it rather than reading it is likely the main reason I finished it. I suspect that fatigue would have set in, and I would have put it aside to read something else, sure I would get back to it-which is something I rarely manage to do. That said, I am glad that I stuck with it on my daily commute. I fell in love with some of the characters as much as I despise others, and I am looking forward to seeing where their lives go, and where the fate of the world goes, in the next (I'm sure, hefty) installment.