And the story begins with a trilogy. Ken Follett's The Century Trilogy is a series of historical fiction novels following five nationally-diverse families throughout the 20th century. As the century evolves, the families grow and break apart causing for intense interpersonal conflicts, coupled with some of the most historically tumultuous events in history. All in all, making for a long, uplifting, yet emotionally draining experience. Combined the trilogy is slightly under 3000 pages in length. This is no mere literary read. It is a fanatical quest. Are you up for the challenge? I was.
The first book, called Fall of Giants, begins in 1911 and ends shortly after World War One, the second, Winter of the World, covers 1933 to the late 1940s, and lastly, Edge of Eternity continues from the 1960s until 2008. As a student of history, the books do a fairly good job at keeping the historical record straight. It was a joy to see how much work and research Ken Follett and his editors did. Their dedication to accuracy made the read all the more enjoyable as a whole.
No series, however, is without it's ups and downs. Fall of Giants was, without question or thought, my favourite of the trilogy. Within this 900+ pager, the five families and their members: Billy and Ethel (Welsh), Fitz and Maud (English), Walter (German), Grigori and Lev (Russian), and Gus (American), become entangled into the political maneuvering necessary for social change, as well as the traumas and losses of love and war. Despite coming from different countries, the characters easily ebb and flow throughout the story, contaminating and benefiting the others around them. Marriages between the clans or clandestine relationships bind them enemy to enemy in many instances. Very quickly, Follett was able to make me feel for the characters. It was a feat I believed challenging at first, considering many characters are not discussed for hundreds of pages at a time and then pop up quite suddenly. Luckily, Follett includes family trees and maps in his novel jackets and beginning pages to help jog the memory whenever necessary.
Fall of Giants did make me shed a few tears. I will, however, attribute these feelings towards some of the unspeakable acts of pain inflicted upon the characters which bring to mind the real men who fought and died in the conditions of World War One. So more of a cry for humanity versus any particular character in general. If you find yourself heavily invested in books, I would say be prepared to cry during the progression of the series. (Only Edge of Eternity didn't bring about a single tear!) Loosing your favourite underdogs is a common trend I've come to expect in Follett's writing. Foolishly, I always cheer for the underdog. I torture myself.
The second instalment, Winter of the World, brought a different tone than the first novel. Since these novels focus on families through the generations, it is understandable that we gain and lose some beloved figures along the way. Yet, the second generation did not seem nearly as engaging as the first. Often when the original main cast made an appearance, they seemed like empty shells of the people they once were. The feisty, passionate, or even cold disposition making up their personalities disappeared. In place was nothing but hollow husks, mainly causing parental opposition to their children in most instances.
Winter of the World was when I realized another great flaw I see in this trilogy as a whole. The female characters in Follett's novel are far from exceptional. In Fall of Giants, Maud and Ethel feature as the main female protagonists. They are strong women, motivated politically and romantically, and strive for the advancement of women and other minority groups throughout their scenes. Their female descendants, and those of their fellow male characters, come nowhere near their well structured personas. Many of them are portrayed as selfish with overinflated senses of importance or merely as sexual objects for the male characters to use at their pleasure. Women as sexual objects becomes more and more prevalent in this trilogy as the decades go on. I thought that the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s to 1980s would empower these characters. I was wrong. The sexual depravity of the men seems to only intensify while the women lose all sense of development in the novel.
In all, the amount of sexually explicit scenes rises as we progress throughout the series. Overtly sexual, even vulgar, scenes were interspersed so frequently in Edge of Eternity it made me want to skip through them. They were so unnecessary and provided nothing of value to the plot of the novel. In a lot of ways, the scenes made me hate a lot of the characters more than I already did. The characters felt the least developed and brought forth the least emotion from me. Not too mention, since this was the final instalment I expected Follett to discuss the fates of the remaining original cast members from book one. A lot of them fade into nonexistence and their 'alive' or 'dead' status remains hazy. Notably, two characters are completely forgotten altogether. One is misplaced so horribly, he is written out of his own family tree entirely. The family carried on as if he didn't exist. Ouch!
I feel Ken Follett really dropped the ball on Edge of Eternity. The story moves at a quick clip for the first quarter and then the rest is like sitting in the lobby of your dentist's office: you want the whole experience to hurry up and be done. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginnings of the Cold War provide some vivid and intense ultimatums between the Russian and American characters. Additionally, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States gets a meaty portion of the novel. Though the plot points involving personal relationships between the characters were extremely predictable. The novel's dependance of politics intensified in this last instalment and provides a lacklustre substitute for the combative scenes in earlier novels. It felt as though the Vietnam War was only included to provide one character with the opportunity to have a more riveting story. Personally, I would have written him out versus providing useless conflict which only lasted one chapter and was never discussed again! The political bias of Follett, also, comes through most clearly in the series conclusion. The left and right wings of American politics are so askew, it's almost laughable. True, bias is incredibly difficult to avoid, but Follett's liberal views are clearer than the plot.
Ken Follett is one of my favourite living authors. The well-balanced nature of his descriptions and the strengths of his characters in the midst of real historical events, is commendable. Nevertheless, The Century Trilogy feels one novel too long. Had this series ended at Winter of the World, my feelings towards it may not have escalated so negatively. I will absolutely re-read Fall of Giants in the future and, even Winter of the World. But as far as I'm concerned, this trilogy is really a dilogy.
My Rating: 7.5/10