Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

The first of Follett’s Century trilogy, Fall of Giants is a saga which covers the years 1914-1924. It follows the lives of five families, all inter-connected either through close ties, chance encounters, or events. The novel follows these families and characters through the momentous events of this decade, telling their individual stories, and the world-changing events which they witness.

Follett’s task is a massive one, and he manages it with more success in some places than others. The Russian scenes are perhaps those which stand out the most. His depiction of life in Tsarist Russia, the experiences of the Russians on Germany’s Eastern Front, the turbulent events which led up to the Revolution in 1917, and the complicated mess facing the Bolsheviks following the revolution were all excellently told through the eyes of Grigori Peshkov, and put into context by the opinions of other characters in other countries. For example Earl Fitzherbert, an English aristocrat, is appalled by the socialism which he sees as having destroyed a nation and denied his own half-Russian son his inheritance. Conversely the Welsh mining families cheer the revolution as an example of oppressed workers overthrowing those who had no right to rule over them.

The ‘fall of giants’ is obviously the biggest theme of the novel, and signifies many things – not only the fall of great countries such as Germany and Tsarist Russia but also smaller things, such as the superiority of individuals. Grigori Peshkov is no longer downtrodden by his social superiors and the police. The rich Vialov family in Buffalo, America, loses its great fortune. Earl Fitzherbert loses the ability to make things happen just because of his noble birth. Lowly characters rise, too, such as Ethel Williams and her brother Billy. The final scene in the novel is the most powerful, and sums up this entire theme.

One point for criticism could also be an achievement: Follett manages to tie in all of the key facts and events and connect them to one of his characters. This is implausible, and gives the impression that he is ticking things off a list. For example, Walter von Ulrich has to be present at the German discussions concerning unrestricted submarine warfare, personally escorts Lenin across Germany and Earl Fitzherbert translates the Zimmermann telegram. All of these things are important because they are essential for telling an accurate story, and Follett should be praised for not shying away from the facts. They are crucial for the reader to understand the unfolding of the war and how it will affect the characters, but it can seem a little contrived. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how it could have been done in another way without resorting to dull and reported facts.

The real strength of the novel is the characterisation. The protagonists are well-drawn and fully-fleshed out, with interesting individual stories and distinct personalities and ways of speaking. Their differing opinions tell the story of 1914-1924 better than any checklist of events. It will be interesting to see how Follett continues his story in Winter of the World, which will undoubtedly feature the children of the main characters of Fall of Giants. The third book in the series will be titled Edge of Eternity, continuing the saga into the Cold War.

This review was written after listening to the audiobook, read by John Lee. He does an admirable job, especially considering the vast array of accents.

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Consider Phlebas is the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, a series of books set in the same conceptual universe yet not sequential or directly linked. It is set during the war between the Culture, a highly sophisticated civilization which relies heavily upon hugely intelligent machines, and the Idirans, a race of religiously fanatical tri-pedal people who are resisting the Culture’s domineering desire to ‘correct’ the illogical whims of inferior peoples.

The novel opens with a skirmish between the two warring sides; during which one of the Culture ships’ intelligent ‘Minds’ makes a miraculous escape and hides upon a dead planet: a world to which access is denied. The plot rests upon the race to retrieve the Mind before the other side gets there first. To carry out this mission, the Idirans employ a Changer called Horza, who has previously lived upon the dead planet and has an increased chance of being allowed through the barrier. Consider Phlebas is essentially Horza’s story: the string of near-death adventures which carry him across several galaxies as he is caught up in events beyond his control, and his determination to return to complete his mission, and thwart the Culture.

The most noticeable thing about Consider Phlebas (and possibly Iain M. Banks’ science fiction works as a whole – I can only comment so far on this book as my first taste of his work) is that Banks does not explain everything to the reader. The narrative assumes knowledge which the reader cannot possibly possess, and while this might irritate or confuse some people, it is highly effective. It means that the narrative is not slowed down by unnecessary explanations, and the reader can simply work out over the course of the novel what certain objects, places, and events are and what they signify. For example, we are not told that Horza can change his appearance, we can just infer it by his attempt at the beginning of the book to escape imprisonment by shrinking his wrists. The lack of explanation can be confusing, but if it were written in a different style, much of the integrity of Banks’ creation could be compromised.

The pace is nicely varied, with passages of break-neck action interspersed with more reflective moments which allow the reader a glimpse into the wider conflict between the Culture and the Idirans, and into the deepest thoughts of the characters. These moments are very philosophical, and surely the firmest proof that science fiction is not all about space-ships and gun-battles. Banks’ work is incredibly sophisticated, far more sophisticated than a brief plot outline can convey. Consider Phlebas is a futuristic odyssey, and while it does leave the reader with mixed emotions at the end, this is testament to the reader’s involvement in the book – and the epilogue is perhaps the finest part of the entire story.

The Angel’s Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

It is difficult to describe the work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón to those who have not encountered it. His ideas are original and intriguing, his style opulent yet fast-paced. But what sets him apart from other writers is his ability to blur reality without descending into the absurd. Magical realism is not easy to write well, and Zafón manages to introduce the more bizarre aspects of The Angel’s Game in a subtle manner, using them to drive the mystery and intrigue of the plot in what is essentially a crime novel. When the main character signs a publishing deal with a mysterious man who wears an angel brooch, he finds himself caught up in a string of deaths – some past, some present – and takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Zafón’s work should be read by anybody who loves reading or writing – not only because of his skill in the art, but because of the subject matter. The Angel’s Game is narrated in the first person, by the protagonist and struggling writer David Martín. The novel begins with Martín telling how his first piece of writing was published. We follow Martín as his crime stories grow from newspaper serials to a series of published books, and are witness to his desire to write an intellectual masterpiece of a novel, which he does – in more ways than one. During the novel he is introduced by a bookshop-keeper, Sempere (a character familiar to those who have read The Shadow of the Wind) to the vast library of forgotten books, hidden away beneath the streets of Barcelona. The book which Martín chooses from its endless shelves is one of the keys to the mystery which has engulfed him – a mystery from which is seems he cannot ever escape.

The narrative is compelling because Martín’s voice is so strong. His profession makes it difficult to distinguish Zafón as author from Martín as narrator, a touch which adds to the theme of what is real and what is not. The style of writing in the descriptive passages is very rich and atmospheric, just one step away from being over-the-top, and it’s possible that Martín is indulging in the elaborate description. He is not altogether a wholly sympathetic character, frequently wrapped-up in self-pity and so introspective that sometimes it is difficult to keep track of how much time has passed in the novel, because we are kept close in Martín’s thoughts – and time passes without him noticing. Again this adds to the theme of distorted reality.

Overall this book is an excellent read. The plot is complex, and the mystery Martín investigates is unsettling, because it is not constrained by the usual confines of reality. Is everything really happening? Is David Martín connected to past events by an unavoidable fate, and why? Is everybody he meets actually real? And more importantly – what will happen in the end? It’s possible to be put off by the more bizarre aspects of the novel if you don’t realise that it will reach into the realms of magical realism, but although the book may leave you feeling a little confused, the more you think about it the more rewarding it is.

The Explorer, by James Smythe

Cormac Easton is a journalist stranded in space. His crewmates are all dead, the space-shuttle is unresponsive, and he can do nothing but wait. His predicament shares similarities to that of Dr David Bowman in Arthur C Clarke’s famous novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it is doubtless that Smythe’s work has been inspired by this great work of fiction. However, it is original and distinct, has its own story to tell, and its own way of telling it. Cormac’s desperate thoughts are relayed to us candidly, and while the reader begins wondering how a whole novel can unfold with just the thoughts of a stranded space-explorer, the situation changes surprisingly rapidly, and from Part 2 it becomes incredibly gripping. As the situation on board spirals out of control, so does Cormac himself.

The main question about his fate is: why does the shuttle not turn back to Earth as it was expected to? What is wrong with the ship? Fans of Arthur C Clarke will remember how HAL interfered with both ship and crew in 2001: A Space Odyssey – and it’s probable that Smythe intends the reader to make the connection.

However it is not technology and hardware which take centre stage in this science-fiction novel. It should not be categorised as either hard sci-fi or soft sci-fi; it certainly involves itself in science, but – mostly due to Cormac’s role as a journalist, not a typical space-man, technical jargon is neatly avoided. Most important in The Explorer is the crew manning the shuttle. The reader begins by learning how each of them died – certainly an unusual way of meeting the cast of a novel. But as Cormac’s journey continues, he discovers more about the crew he thought he knew, and so do we, alongside the discoveries we make about Cormac himself.

Overall The Explorer is an intense read, and impossible to put down once Part 2 gets underway. It is very skilfully written and structured, and deserves to be ranked alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of the outstanding books in this genre. You don’t need to have read Clarke to appreciate The Explorer, but it is certainly a must-read for Clarke fans.

Parallel Worlds, by Michio Kaku

A fascinating book by the king of popular science, Parallel Worlds allows the non-physicist to get a grasp on some of the most confusing yet interesting aspects of the entire cosmos. Kaku himself is one of the founders of string-theory – possibly the most exciting scientific theory of our own times – and is therefore well-placed to write about it and its implications, and this he achieves remarkably well, using comparisons and analogies to convey mind-boggling concepts to a non-scientific reader.

If you’ve ever wondered whether life could exist out there in deep space, or whether we could travel across billions and billions of lightyears of space – or indeed whether we could travel in time, then this is certainly a book which will answer some of your questions. But be prepared to radically alter your view of the world (assuming no prior scientific knowledge). Kaku will introduce you to a world of many dimensions, and invites you to imagine an entirely separate world separated from you by the tiniest of distances – a world which we just cannot see.

I came to this book as a non-scientist with a keen interest in the world, the universe, and the way things work. Although I had to re-read one particular chapter this is unsurprising given the subject matter and my lack of specialist knowledge. Overall the book was highly readable and thought-provoking.

Manuscript Found in Accra, by Paulo Coelho

Manuscript Found in Accra builds on the fundamentals of Paulo Coelho’s writing: that fact and fiction are not easily separated, and that the key values of life, be they ancient or modern, cannot be labelled as imaginary. His newest book is presented in the style of an actual ancient relic, a manuscript discovered long ago and kept in an Egyptian museum – its contents are presented as fact. Unlike some of his other stories, such as his best-known work, The Alchemist, the reader is not given a narrative story to follow, gleaning pearls of wisdom along the way. Instead it is a series of answers to questions which are asked by a crowd of anxious people in Jerusalem, the night before an expected siege. The man giving the answers is a Copt, a wise man from Greece who allays the fears of the crowd.

‘What is knowledge?… It isn’t the absolute truth about life and death, but the thing that helps us to live and confront the challenges of day-to-day life.’ By presenting the book as a series of speeches to a frightened crowd of people before a potentially fatal attack on Jerusalem, Coelho adds strength to the Copt’s words. He is speaking to people in fear of their lives, but he is advising them on how best to go about their daily lives, and how to deal with difficult situations in general. No matter how large or small the problem, there is an answer, and the values offered to the reader by the Copt are a good way to start confronting life’s challenges.