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Still a good read, but not as good as "Giants" or previous Follett works
on September 18, 2012
Follett is my favorite author and I have read all his books. I enjoyed the first installment in this trilogy, "The Fall of Giants" though it was not his best work. That book had a bad habit of following a character leading up to great world events, then cutting to a different character only to return to the previous one sometime after those events. I realize this is ultimately a "character story" but it's also epic historic fiction and it seemed unnecessary. Still, I enjoyed most of the characters, felt I learned new things about the history of the period and was reasonably engrossed. I gave it 4 stars.
"Winter of the World" repeats the same issue but has additional flaws. It picks up about a decade after the previous book. All the major characters that survived the end of the first book are still in this one, but they have been relegated to secondary characters. We never get the story from their first-person POV, like we did in "Giants." Instead, the POV's are now all from their various children. Which would be fine, except I felt these previous major characters had all been reduced to two dimensional archetypes. Fitz is a cliche British lord who you would have thought never had a moment of indiscretion or doubt in his life. Ethel is the wise and matronly Labor politician who seems incapable of mistakes or indiscretion. Maud is basically a straw man for the War's impact on German women, especially those who were not disposed to follow the Fascists. Grigori, who had one of the most interesting stories in the previous book, is now devoid of any interest. He's a whole-hearted functionary of Stalin, nothing more or less. The only character with any interesting backstory development is Lev, though I didn't find it quite credible.
The new characters, the next generation, were inconsistent in quality. With the exception of Daisy, Lev's daughter, I didn't find most of their characters that complicated or interesting so much as the historical circumstances they were in the middle of. Ethel and Fitz's son Lloyd, for example, had one of the most interesting stories, but not because he was complicated. He was a decent man and hero from start to finish with very little personal development. But his adventures volunteering in the Spanish civil war before the full outbreak of WWII was interesting. Maud and Walter's daughter also had an interesting story, as did Grigori's son. But not much in the way of development, other than to sow the seeds for Grigori's son's doubts about communism. They were highly likeable, just not complicated. Ethel was complicated.
Another short-coming of this sequel to "Giants" was that Follett didn't expand the universe of families and had already contrived for the ones established in the first book to all be reasonably prosperous and important. In "Giants" the Williams start out as dirt-poor miners in England and we get some great perspective on that life and what it was like to be a grunt for the Allies in WWI. Similarly, Lev and Grigori start out as peasants in Russia. Here we never get that perspective first-hand from any of the characters. The Williams are by now a Labor Party political dynasty. Grigori is a General in Stalin's Russia and Lev is would be Godfather-style gangster with an unconvincing twist (which I won't spoil). The only family in decline is Walter and Maud's in Germany, but still they are better off than most.
Nor does Follett make any effort to give the reader perspective from multiple sides this time. In "Giants" for example we had Germany's perspective from Walter and saw it not as a unilateral act of aggression but the inevitable results of aristocratic arrogance from all sides. Here the Nazi's and Stalin's communists are evil incarnate from day one. On the brief occasions we're in any of the heads of those supporting them it's always to see them doubting and troubled. I'm not suggesting the Fascists weren't evil, of course, but it just lent the story less depth and complexity. Germany, for example, had the better part of a decade where more and more people became supporters of the Nazi's because they did temporarily improve the quality of life and efficiency of government for those citizens they didn't persecute. This was true not just in Germany but beyond, where they were admired by many people in the West until they started invading their European neighbors. Here that admiration is portrayed almost exclusively as fueled by hatred and prejudice rather than the false allure of Fascist efficiency. Missed opportunity.
Follett remains my favorite author and I still look forward to reading the third installment of this trilogy. It was okay, just not exceptional.
Oh, and the $20 Kindle price (US) is ridiculous. If you're not a die-hard fan or deparate for a new read, I would consider waiting until you can borrow a copy from the library. But I didn't factor that into my review or rating.