The second volume in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy begins with a scene that aptly foreshadows its chilling title. The year is 1933. Hitler has just been made chancellor, and Germans are pondering how to react. Over breakfast with her family at their Berlin home, native Englishwoman Maud von Ulrich defends the outspoken stance she took in her last magazine column. “What would life be like for our children if Germany became a Fascist state?” she argues.
Her husband, Walter, a member of the Reichstag, prefers a less risky approach to the Nazi threat, while son Erik disagrees: “But the Aryan race must be superior – we rule the world!”
It’s all rather ominous – and obvious. Follett’s no-nonsense style can lack subtlety at times, but he more than makes up for it with his firm grasp of history and ability to juggle multiple story strands, each as attention-grabbing as the last. In great part, he meets the high standard set by the mega-bestselling Fall of Giants. Although its outline never hides too deeply beneath the plot, Winter of the World is another accomplished and consistently entertaining feat.
In this panoramic epic spanning 16 years, from the Depression through the Cold War, diverse characters from around the globe are caught up in major (and some minor) historical dramas. From protests in German streets to the London Blitz to the Manhattan Project’s inner workings, the five families from the first book – Welsh, English, Russian, German, and American – get even further entangled. The focus has moved ahead to a new generation. Some children pursue the same paths as their parents, and new heroes and heroines emerge.
Each fights his or her own battle where it happens, be it in the boardrooms of Washington, D.C., in the air over Midway Island or much closer to home. In keeping with reality, one rarely gets to choose. As Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter, does her courageous utmost to halt Nazi atrocities, Lloyd Williams, the Cambridge-educated illegitimate son of a housemaid-turned-MP, heads to Spain during its civil war to combat fascism, not expecting to fight communists too.
This is an era when a factory worker from St. Petersburg, Russia, can become an American millionaire, and his gorgeous socialite daughter can marry almost anyone she wants. Follett gives them space to grow, and through their experiences creates some very gratifying moments. Following wartime turmoil, the former Daisy Peshkov awakens from her rich, empty existence to establish a meaningful life, and although her uncouth father, Lev, never achieves likeability, the best comeback lines belong to him.
“The world of international politics and diplomacy was quite small,” Lloyd Williams thinks at one point. This happens to be true. As he and other ordinary citizens turn into movers and shakers, their many coincidental meetings begin to make more sense. This mammoth saga is all about connections, and Follett also explains with clarity the links among the political and social movements during this darkest of times.
Winter of the World includes nearly every type of Second World War story, drawing together scenes of country house drama, suspenseful front-line action, Soviet espionage, daring resistance, generational conflict and even interracial romance. Most impressively, rather than a patchwork of disparate segments, Follett has produced another seamlessly woven and enjoyably readable work, one which honours the individual acts of bravery that shifted history’s course.
Sarah Johnson’s latest book is Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre. She blogs about historical novels at readingthepast.com.
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