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Follett fans get length over depth

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Winter of the World

By Ken Follett

Dutton, 940 pages, $38

IS it time for Ken Follett to take a break? The Welsh novelist, who has churned out thrillers and walked readers through centuries of cathedral building in England, seems to have become more concerned with length than depth.

His new 940-page opus, Winter of the World, weaves the lives of dozens of characters over a sweep of the western world during a turning point for these nations, but ultimately reduces the story to a parody of history.

In the second book of this fictional series begun in 2010 with Fall of Giants, Follett once again takes readers into the cataclysmic events of early 20th-century Europe, this time the Second World War.

The fates of the central families are churned together by bloodlines and the critical roles each plays in historic events.

But it is an absurd narrative he crafts. Be they the humble working class or the political elite -- sometimes, remarkably, both -- his characters are pivotal to the events that would become the historical markers of the era.

Russian Volodya Peshkov, the son of Grigori Peshkov, who was separated from his brother Lev as the First World War was ramping up in Fall of Giants, is in the room when Stalin solidifies his power.

American Ivy Leaguer Woody Dewar, son of Senator Gus (the man who saw his sweetheart swept from him by upstart immigrant Lev Peshkov), is in the room when his father convinces the president to champion the League of Nations.

Woody narrowly escaped death at Pearl Harbour. Volodya marries a scientist who works on the Russian bomb project triggered by the Americans entering the age of nuclear warfare.

The Dewars, Peshkovs, Fitzherberts, Von Ulrichs and Leckwiths -- all central to the plot in the First World War setting of Fall of Giants -- reunite as western civilization collides again.

Follett accurately captures the British political scene, torn between the extremes of right and left. But he falls down in describing the shifting cultural landscape of Germany as it descends into madness and barbarism.

But Follett's real sin is the fact he doesn't care enough to sculpt dialogue that is convincing. Rather, the characters of Follett's drama talk like they were cast in the worst that soap opera has to offer.

Once considered a master of historical fiction, Follett has become lazy. Winter of the World is easily read and consumed, but the dialogue is simplistic and complex events are reduced to superficial reference points.

Finally, though, it is simply unbelievable, not because of the enormity of the events on which the story is founded, but because his plot and characters lack authenticity.

Carla Von Ulrich is an Allied sympathizer who turns over the key to halting the Germans in Russia; she is a nurse who helps keep open the medical practice of her Jewish doctor; she feeds a family to stave off their starvation; she sacrifices herself to the rapacious hands of Russian invaders to preserve the virginity of a Jewish girl, who becomes her adopted daughter. All right, already.

Groan away, but readers will mow through the volume, right to the last page's opening strings of Silent Night. Despite its hefty size, Winter of the World is a trip. It is not good historical fiction. But, it seems, it is now Follett's shtick.

Catherine Mitchell is a member of the Free Press editorial board.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J9

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