Fall of Giants

By: Ken Follett
Listened to the audio book

I know I've said it before, but it's as true for this book as it has been for the others I've given the same review: when listening to the audio book, the reader is critical. A great book can be rendered "unreadable," and an average book elevated to great. In this case, the reader was superb. John Lee deserves kudos if for nothing else, delivering a wide range of accents, from his native British, to Welsh, Cockney, German, American (and a surprisingly good job, at that, as most Brits overdo the "flat" in American accents), to the very difficult Russian.

He delivers a range of characters, male and female, imbuing each with a genuine life and energy unique to that character, and never slipping up, even when jumping from the German of one of his protagonists to the upper-crust British of another, as they converse with one another. Speaking as an actor who does a number of accents, I can attest to the fact that Russian is extremely difficult, and jumping from one cadence to the other while reading at a rapid clip is more than sufficient challenge for any performer!

As to the book itself, I have only one major criticism, which I'll get to momentarily. But first, the good stuff - and there is plenty of it. The setting is the WWI era, from roughly 1916 to the early 20s. Follett introduces us to several lead characters: a Welsh coal miner and his sister (Billy and Ethel Williams); to the Fitzherberts, the philandering Earl and his suffragette sister Maud and the German nobleman (and later spy) who marries her in secret; and the two Russian brothers, Lev and Gregory, whose fortunes take them far apart, one to marry into a Russo-American family in the States, the other to eventually marry his brother's cast-off Russian lover. How they all tie together is never forced - Ethel, impregnated by Earl Fitzherbert and abandoned when he learns that his Russian princess wife, Baya, is also pregnant, eventually joins forces with Maud in the publication of a suffragette newspaper. Maud and her German lover, Walter, marry in secret on the eve of war, and are then separated for the 5 years of its duration; Lev kills a man and takes his brother's hard earned ticket to the United States where he seduces the daughter of a wealthy Russian immigrant, who just happened to be engaged to Gus Dewart, who ends up a right hand man to President Woodrow Wilson.

This large cast of characters is one of Follett's trademarks, and he does it very well. While you'd think that jumping from story line to story line might be confusing or messy, he handles it with ease and grace, giving each story its due, and while sometimes I was disappointed when he dropped on thread and picked up another, I was soon engrossed in the next tale - and I have to say that each storyline was as intriguing as every other one.

What particularly intrigued me about the book was that I wasn't that familiar with WWI, its causes and the various forces at work at the time - such as the allies lobbying for American support while the Germans were busy trying to threaten American with invasion via Mexico. I didn't understand the Germans fear of being overrun by its neighbors as a lead-in to the war, or that the Russian army was busy revolting against the Czar, and thus couldn't be bothered with the war, especially when they and most of the Russian population were starving and freezing. I was fascinated to learn all this, and more, and in that painless way that historical fiction has of teaching through storytelling.

The one significant failure of the book - and it was, to my way of thinking, huge - was the Follett completely ignoring the influenza that spread through the world in 1918, and the important, if not finalizing role it played in bringing the war to an end. My own grandfather died aboard ship on his way to England in 1918 - he was a doctor, and the entire ship was infected, most of the soldiers never set foot on English soil. The epidemic is never mentioned at all, which I found surprising, to say the least.

Nevertheless, the book - while not new - is worth the read, and at over 800 pages, it's a great book to pick up for the long, cold winter, as it will keep you happily occupied through many dark evenings. And like me, you might learn something while you're being entertained.


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