Book Review: The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett

I decided to review all three of these books together, Fall of Giants, Winter of the World, and Edge of Eternity because they are essentially one long story, and because I don’t have anything significantly different to say about the three of them. I found them very consistent in terms of both their pros and cons.

I read these books on my Kindle, but in paperback version they amount to 3,008 pages, so they represent a significant investment in time. They have been extremely successful and popular. They’ve been translated into numerous languages and sold millions of copies. I read all three, and it wasn’t a chore. There wasn’t any point where I was tempted to stop.

Having said that I can’t whole heartedly recommend them. I rate them a three out of five. That three though is the average of a five and a one. Five for the story. One for the execution.

What do I mean by that? These books are extremely ambitious. They follow the lives of four families, one each American, British, German, and Russian, (No French, which says something but I’m not sure what.) beginning before the first world war and continuing more or less to the present day. The research was extensive and the novels cover the major events of the twentieth century, the world wars, Russian revolution, iron curtain, and civil rights, among others. To the extent that Mr. Follett has an axe to grind it is on the side of normal people and against thugs, bureaucracy, etc. So in terms of story design I don’t think you could ask for much more.

So what is my problem with execution? I think I can boil it down to two things. The first is consistent with the experience I’ve had with Mr. Follett’s writing in the past. That is his prose. I can only describe the writing as wooden. There is a lot of exposition. I ended up feeling that people were being described to me rather than feeling that I was meeting them. The dialogue is also sometimes hard to take. People from all countries and walks of life would say things like, “you bet,” when asked a question. This may seem picky but I think it’s illustrative. At one point, a young African American lawyer who found himself standing near Bull Connor watching his police brutalize civil rights marchers tried to decide whether to “remonstrate” with him about his behavior. I don’t know anyone who actually uses remonstrate in his daily thoughts or conversation, even Harvard educated lawyers, and certainly not when he’s a witness to the kind of brutality described.

There’s a common piece of advice given to aspiring writers, which is to show, not tell. I’ve always thought that Mr. Follett is one of the most successful writers who primarily tell in their writing rather than showing. As I mentioned, there is a lot of exposition and explanation of what characters are thinking, rather than letting their words and actions speak for themselves.

My second problem may sound a little strange, but there is an incredible amount of sex in these novels. Admittedly most adult people have sex, but in my view a little goes a long way in most novels. I found most of it in these novels gratuitous. In most cases it didn’t really do anything to move the story along. Even worse, given my impression of the prose, most of it struck me as embarrassing rather than steamy. Kind of like an awkward guy at work started telling off-color jokes while everyone else edges away

So should you read them? I’m not sorry I did. I mostly read my Kindle while commuting on metro so I get a good 90 minutes or so to read every work day. If you have the time and find the twentieth century interesting, then sure. Why not? You can get them from the library so all it will cost you is your time.

On the other hand, I often found myself groaning or rolling my eyes relatively often while reading, which is not an endorsement. There are plenty of great novels set during the various periods of the twentieth century. If your time is constrained, you might want to concentrate on some of those and give these a miss.

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