Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken Follet

Ellen’s Review: Winter of the World by Ken FolletWinter of the World by Ken Follett
Published by Penguin on 2012-09-18
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 928
THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Picking up where Fall of Giants, the first novel in the extraordinary Century Trilogy, left off, Winter of the World follows its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—through a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the great dramas of World War II, and into the beginning of the long Cold War. Carla von Ulrich, born of German and English parents, finds her life engulfed by the Nazi tide until daring to commit a deed of great courage and heartbreak....American brothers Woody and Chuck Dewar, each with a secret, take separate paths to momentous events, one in Washington, the other in the bloody jungles of the Pacific....English student Lloyd Williams discovers in the crucible of the Spanish Civil War that he must fight Communism just as hard as Fascism....Daisy Peshkov, a driven social climber, cares only for popularity and the fast set until war transforms her life, while her cousin Volodya carves out a position in Soviet intelligence that will affect not only this war but also the war to come.

Winter of the World, the second installment of Ken Follett’s The Century Trilogy, takes place a couple years after Fall of Giants.  Our favorite characters from the first installment return, but the story now follows their children.  Spread across the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, Winter of the World gives a glimpse into life during economic depression, the collapse of the Treaty of Versailles, the Spanish Civil War, Stalin’s government, and World War II.  We see characters live through major events like the bombings of London and Berlin, Pearl Harbor, and the division of Germany into occupational zones.

From a history perspective, there are a number of things that I appreciate about this book.  First, some background: There is a stigma surrounding German history during the twentieth century.  The Sonderweg, or special path, is essentially a modern theory that several historians – notably the Fischer school – subscribe to in which the events of German history are culpable for the inevitability of the rise of Nazi Germany.  This is merely an extremely general explanation, but overall, German history is viewed in a negative light due to the infamy of the Third Reich.  Recent debates sparked by the centennial of World War I challenge the notion of the Sonderweg.

Like in Fall of Giants, Ken Follett portrays both the horrendous acts of World War II Germany as well as the German citizens who fought back.  Despite being a fictitious account of the Second World War, Winter of the World does an excellent job challenging the stereotype surrounding the German people of this period.  Follett does not spend his chapters examining the brutality of the SS and Einsatzgruppen against the Jews because everyday citizens did not have access to this information; although, there is an example of violence against the LGBT community.  He shows the enchantment the Nazi party cast over German youth as well as those who rebelled against it.  For this showing the many faces of the German people, I believe that Follett conducted great research and put much effort into this work.

This trend is present in other areas of the book as well.  Victors tend to view themselves as great and containing few flaws, probably because it is the victors who write history, but Follett again shows that this must be challenged.  Winter of the World demonstrates how easily fascism almost spread to the United States and Great Britain.  Before each country battled fascist Germany, Italy, and Spain, many Americans and Brits were just as eager to voice anti-Semitic opinions, challenge democracy, and use scare tactics.  Scenes from Winter of the World include demonstrations, protests, and debates over the future of each country.

While I appreciate the depth Follett explores in history, the story itself was not as compelling for me as Fall of Giants.  Simply, there were too many characters and too many events.  I feel as if Follett wanted to make sure he included every major event, which in turn sacrificed the quality of character development and cohesiveness.  A big part of me wanted to follow the characters I came to know in Fall of Giants.  Yes, you get to continue their stories, but it is through another perspective – their children – and if each protagonist from the first book has two kids, it becomes a lot of characters to learn and build a relationship with.

My favorites in Winter of the World are Daisy Peshkov, daughter of Lev Peshkov; Lloyd Williams, son of Ethel Williams; and Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter von Ulrich; and at times Volodya Peshkov, adopted son of Grigori Peshkov.  These characters had the most exciting storylines, the most developed personalities, and were the easiest to become attached to and sympathize with.  The other protagonists had some exciting moments, but I found them to be mostly dull and just wanted to skip ahead.  Follett also included repetitive moments that seemed unnecessary.  For example in the cases of both Lev and Fitz, the abandoned son meets the wanted son.  Neither instance proved to be as dramatic as Follett probably intended, and neither instance added much substance to the plot.

Looking beyond these issues, I still recommend Winter of the Worlds to any historical fiction or series-loving fan.  The exciting moments make the book worth reading, as does the ability to see what happens to former protagonists.  I’m waiting for the final installment Edge of Eternity to be available for download from my library, so expect a review on the completed series in the near future.


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