Having already enjoyed reading Pillars of the Earth and World without End, I have recently been given Ken Follett’s epic Century Trilogy to read. It comprises, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity
Fall of Giants
The novel begins with thirteen-year-old Billy Williams, nicknamed Billy Twice, going to work his first day in the coal mine underneath the fictional Welsh town of Aberowen in 1911. The main story begins in 1914 with Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert, Earl Fitzherbert, who maintains a country estate in Aberowen and licenses the land on which the coal mine is built, hosting a party for many powerful people around the world. His guests include: Lady Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s sister, who is far more liberal than her conservative brother. Walter von Ulrich, a German nobleman and a former schoolmate of Fitz’s. He and Maud begin at the party to act on the mutual attraction they have felt for years. Graf (Count) Robert von Ulrich, Walter’s Austrian homosexual cousin. Gus Dewar, a highly educated American who is also a close adviser to President Woodrow Wilson. Bea Fitzherbert, Fitz’s wife, a Russian Princess. King George V, King of the British Empire and Mary of Teck, wife of King George V. Grigori and Lev Peshkov, two Russian orphans who work in a locomotive factory and have personal reasons to hold a grudge against Princess Bea and the rest of the Russian royal family because their father was executed by Bea’s aristocratic family for alleged improper grazing of cattle on Bea’s family’s land.
The overall theme of the novel revolves around common people trying, and many times succeeding, in throwing off the yokes so often placed on them by a society (largely focused on Britain and Russia) dominated by the landed aristocracy.
The novel takes place during several key events in world history including the First World War, the collapse of Imperial Russia, Germany’s role in the continuance of a bloody war that led to economic collapse and the rise of Hitler, Lenin’s role in the rise of the Bolsheviks as a ploy of the German intelligence service as an attempt to quash Russian resistance on the eastern front, The rise of women’s rights in Britain and role of the Labour party in promoting issues affecting worker safety in a mining accident in Wales. The novel Illustrates considerable differences in social status of the miners and the owners of the mines in quality of life, health and education. With tragic accuracy, as well as the misery and suffering of soldiers in the trench warfare of the time, including, poison gas, futile charges against artillery and machine gun posts etc. during which thousands are slain and the so-called leaders continued to promote it as a victorious exercise. The novel looks at the rise of Corporal Adolf Hitler who attempted to deal with the economic devastation of the Weimar Republic under the settlement treaty. The characters and their extended families find their fortunes changing for the better and for the worse due to both their interactions with each other and the effects of the First World War.
Winter of the World
The second part of the trilogy continues the saga following characters from Germany, Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union, who become linked by events leading to World War II, and continues through the war and its immediate aftermath. The major characters are often children of the characters who were seen in Fall of Giants. The novel covers a wide range of world events during the period, including the rise of Nazism, the ascent of Franco in Spain, the short-lived growth of British fascism, Action T4, the Battle of Moscow, the Blitz, the Normandy landings, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the development of the atom bomb, the fall of Berlin and many more. The families, spread across four countries, are related to each other though they themselves aren’t often aware of it.
Characters include: Carla von Ulrich- the daughter of Reichstag member Walter von Ulrich and magazine editor Maude Fitzherbert. She was rejected for a medical scholarship in Nazi Germany, but takes a job as a nurse in Berlin. After her father is murdered by the Gestapo for protesting Action T4, she helps German Resistance members. Carla is raped by five Red Army soldiers during the fall of Berlin, and later gives birth to a son that she raises with her mother and her husband, Werner Franck. She also adopts a fourteen-year-old girl named Rebecca, whom she rescued.
Erik von Ulrich- Carla’s older brother, who is initially a firm supporter of the Nazi regime and serves in the German Army as a medical orderly in the invasions of France and Russia, but changes allegiance after witnessing the slaughter of Jewish civilians by the SS,. Captured during the Battle of Berlin, Erik returns to his family a die-hard supporter of communism.
Thomas Macke- a sadistic, fanatical Nazi and ambitious member of the Gestapo. Macke gains ownership of a restaurant owned by Walter von Ulrich’s cousin Robert. He orders the murder of Carla and Erik’s father and poses a serious threat to the German Resistance run by Carla and her boyfriend Werner.
Lloyd Williams- the son of Welsh MP Ethel Leckwith and illigitimate son of Earl Fitzherbert (and cousin of Carla and Erik). Lloyd is a student at Cambridge alongside Viscount ‘Boy’ Fitzherbert. After leading anti-Fascist demonstrations in London, he fights for the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and later helps downed airmen escape Nazi-occupied France during World War II. After the war, he becomes a Labour Party MP and supporter of the Marshall Plan to combat communist aggression.
Daisy Peshkov-the daughter of Russian-American film tycoon/gangster Lev Peshkov and Olga Vyalov, she is initially a superficial- but kind-natured- social climber. When she is rejected by New York high society due to her father’s reputation, she romances and later marries Viscount ‘Boy’ Fitzherbert in England. However, their relationship soon breaks down due to his infidelities and her growing attraction to Lloyd Williams. Daisy drives an ambulance during the Blitz and becomes close friends with Lloyd’s mother Ethel. After Boy is killed when his plane is shot down, Daisy remarries to Lloyd and starts a family with him after the war.
Grigori “Greg” Peshkov- Daisy’s half-brother, the son of Lev and his mistress Marga. A former student of Harvard, Greg is very much his father’s son in his initiative, ambition and womanizing habits. He quickly rises amid the bureaucracy of Washington D.C. during World War II and becomes an observer for the government on the development of the nuclear bomb. During Word War II, Greg discovers he has a son, Georgy, conceived during his earlier romance with a young African-American actress, Jacky Jakes.
Vladimir “Volodya” Peshkov- the son of Soviet General Grigori Peshkov and his wife Katerina, although Vladimir’s biological father is Grigori’s brother Lev (who left Russia before he was born). An intelligence officer for the Red Army, Vladimir is the handler for several Soviet espionage cells in Germany and the U.S, including that of Carla and Werner. He fights in the Spanish Civil War and in the Battle of Moscow, and later manages to obtain covert intelligence on U.S. development of the nuclear bomb. Overtime, Vladimir becomes increasingly uncertain in his devotion to communism as he witnesses the brutal measures taken by Stalin. Vladimir romances a beautiful physicist named Zoya and later marries and starts a family with her after the war.
Woody Dewar- The son of U.S. Senator Gus Dewar and his wife Rosa, and a former friend of Daisy and Greg’s. Although drawn to politics like his father, Woody finds his true passion in news writing and photography. He spends much of the story trying to win the heart of his longtime crush, Joanne Rouzrokh, and eventually does. However, while they are in Hawaii celebrating their engagement, she is killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After his brother’s death, Woody serves in the U.S. Army against the Germans, leading an Airborne platoon on D-Day. He is sent home wounded, and eventually begins a relationship with Bella Hernandez, a young woman he met while training in Britain.
Charles “Chuck” Dewar- Woody’s younger brother. Chuck is a patriotic member of the U.S. Navy, but struggles with his closeted homosexuality. Chuck is present during the attack on Pearl Harbor and later plays a small but vital role in the Battle of Midway and the landing at Bouganville, The novel also sets the stage for the decades to follow with reference to interracial and homosexual relationships, the creation of the United Nations, more liberal attitudes toward sex, and the growth of Eastern European Communism.
Edge of Eternity
The final part of the Saga follows characters from Germany, Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union, who are all linked by events from just before the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 to the wall’s demise in 1989. Characters including: George Jakes, a young Harvard graduated lawyer working in Robert Kennedy’s Attorney General Office, Rebecca Hoffman, an East German teacher in East Berlin. Originally married to Hans, she discovers he is Stasi agent. Soon after she flees to the west with another school teacher who soon becomes her husband, Bernd Held, Walli Franck, a young musician and step brother of Rebecca Hoffman who flees to West Germany to become an international pop star, Lili Franck, Rebecca and Walli’s youngest sister whose way of protesting against the Communist Government is in the form of singing subversive songs, Dave Williams, son of Lloyd Williams and Daisy Peshkov, cousin of Walli, a young musician who become an international pop star and music producer, Dmitri Dvorkin, a young apparatchik in USSR working for Nikita Khrushchov, and responsible for organizing parts of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Tanya Dvorkin, Dmitri’s twin sister, a journalist, who actively campaigns to expose the problems with the Soviet Regime and Cameron Dewar, a conservative student at Berkeley who joins the Nixon administration, and assists in Nixon’s use of illegal espionage techniques.
The major characters are the children of the characters appearing in the first two novels. The novel covers a range of world events during the period, including the civil rights movement in the US, the Cuban Missile crisis, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Solidarity movement And a family split apart by the construction of the Berlin wall who are eventually re-united the night that wall comes down. Characters in the US work (under six presidents) to overcome prejudice and discrimination and to win the Cold War. Characters in East Berlin and Moscow work (under five different Soviet leaders), to bring about the start of the fall of Communism.