What a pleasure to get back to a historical fiction author who not only studies history but also writes well. The first book of a planned trilogy, Fall of Giants begins in 1914 on the eve of World War One and ends with news of the failure of the 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" - led by a young Adolf Hitler - a harbinger of things to come in Germany.
Known earlier in his career for wartime-espionage thrillers like Eye of the Needle, Follett established his historical-fiction reputation with The Pillars of the Earth. He has perfected the popular historical fiction plot device of narrating large historical themes through the more personal stories of multiple generations of interconnected families.
For best effect, this scheme must include fictional families in different places and in different social strata. Fall of Giants follows the Williams family of Welsh coal miners, the Fitzherbert family of aristocratic Welsh landowners, the Peshkov family of Russian peasants, and the DeWar family of the emerging American business-professional-political class. Through these fictional families, we witness many of the most significant events: the war itself, the reluctant American involvement, the Russian Revolution, the "White" counter-revolution, the Versailles peace conference, the women's suffrage movement in Britain - coinciding with the fall from power of the aristocratic landowner class, and the beginning of Prohibition in the US.
Another effective Follett plot device compares and contrasts the fortunes of two family members who choose different paths. The two Peshkov brothers, for instance, are separated by events leading to the October Revolution. One brother escapes the country just ahead of the police, eventually finding his way to Buffalo, New York, and into the beginnings of organized crime bootleggers. The other brother stays in St. Petersburg, becoming a Bolshevik and confidant of Lenin and Trotsky.
Through the fictional characters, we meet many of the most important historical figures involved in those events, including Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, the young Winston Churchill , Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Alexander Kolchak, and many others.
No need for the "five criteria" to rate Fall of Giants - straight 5s (am I too soft? - maybe). I'm looking forward to the rest of this outstanding trilogy.