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Winter of the World: Book Two of the Century Trilogy

Winter of the World - Ken Follett I really wanted to enjoy this book. I was hoping to eagerly await the reading of the third and final one of the series, but instead, I was hugely disappointed. The plot never thickened. The story slipped into fantasy when each family seemed to experience the same circumstances and follow the same life path, over and over. While well written historically, with minute details of events of consequence, the overly descriptive sexual scenes added absolutely nothing to the narrative except unnecessary length. With such a rich history to explore, the author should not have resorted to the use of such devices to maintain interest. Rather than achieve that goal, it distracted the reader from the importance of the historic thread of events. It was just too easy to predict the lifestyle and events which would befall each of the book's participants depriving the reader of any mystery, whatsoever.
Following on the heels of “Fall Of Giants”, this second installment of The Century Trilogy, picks up where the first left off. Hitler is rising to power and life in Europe is marching lockstep toward Fascism with communism and Stalin's totalitarian government close behind. It covers war torn Europe until shortly after Russia’s acquisition of the atom bomb and the beginning of the Cold War. Aside from containing the faults of the first, being a little too long and having too many characters to follow along comfortably, this was also too contrived and contained little of the positive qualities of the first which was an interesting and engaging story. Although the history was interesting and was well researched and developed, even when, at times, there was a passing of many years which seemed to slide by unnoticed, the story itself was completely unsurprising and the characters were too artificial, placed in circumstances that defied reality.
Perhaps, to move the story along and connect the same five families from the first book: the Williams, the Fitzherberts, the Dewars, and the two Peshkov families, the author simply used too many convenient coincidences and so was unable to maintain a sense of reality for this reader. Each of the families experienced an unwanted pregnancy, either from rape or lust or simply poor judgment, followed by the birth of an illegitimate child who was either brought up in secret or well loved. Brutality, injustice, and loss afflicted them all. At the same time, concurrently, the older generation each had an offspring that ascended into the hierarchy of the government and became influential. Each served their country either as a volunteer or in the armed forces. Although many of the political systems were at odds with each other, i.e, Socialism, Capitalism, Communism and Fascism, the particular goals of the characters, no matter which country they represented, were the same; love of their country and nationalism were at the forefront. Each believed they were helping to create a better world, although some were terribly misguided in their efforts and purpose.
The development of the characters could have been more detailed and diverse, so that each family’s life that was explored was unique, rather than almost a carbon copy of another’s. They came from different countries; all of the young men were in the service of their country, regardless of their political preference; they were capable of being compromised, they were sometimes naïve, and yes, they all seemed to feel it was okay to make a woman pregnant and ignore her plight as if they were not involved; yet each family's story could have easily been substituted for the other's, without skipping a beat, just by changing the names and locations, so similar were the paths each traveled. How could each of the families, the English, Welsh, German, American and Russian, all suffer the same exigencies of life, without the story descending into something rather arduous to read because of its redundancy?
The history being covered was so rich with information that I was struck by the inclusion of trivial subject matter and superfluous family themes. It was simply too repetitive, too trite and each outcome, each action of a character was simply too foreseeable. There was hardly anything left to the imagination. As you turned each page you almost always knew what to expect and what would happen. The characters were related in so many contrived ways: Although he didn’t know it for most of his life, Welshman Lloyd Williams was half brother to Englishman Boy Fitzherbert. Lloyd became second husband to American Daisy Peshkov. Boy was her first husband. Lloyd's mother, once a housemaid, was made pregnant by Earl Fitzherbert, Boy’s father. She was disowned by her family, bore the child and moved to London where she married Bernie Williams, a Jew and a Socialist. She is now a member of Parliament. Both her brother Billy and son Lloyd, enter government service as does Woody Dewar, son of a Senator, Gus Dewar who also met the Russian Peshkov's brothers, Lev and Grigori, when they were young boys in Russia. The Earl’s wife, Bea, and her brother, were responsible for the execution of their parents.
Lloyd Williams did undercover work rescuing those trapped behind enemy lines, and also ran successfully for Parliament like his mother Ethel. Maude Fitzherbert, sister of the Earl, secretly marries German, Walter von Ulrich, with Ethel Williams, Lloyd’s mom, as witness. She like Ethel was disowned. She moves to Germany where she has two children, Erik and Carla. Erik is first a Nazi and then a Communist. Maude and her daughter Carla, disillusioned by Nazism, steal secrets from a German officer to sabotage Hitler’s rise and conquests. Ada, the von Ulrich’s maid, and Carla’s friend Frieda, both had a relative who was murdered by the Germans for being mentally deficient. Carla marries Frieda’s brother Werner Franck. He was in the underground working to overthrow Hitler. Although she is very young, she adopts a Jewish child, Rebecca, whom she "miraculously” rescues from a German camp along with Hannelore, the wife of a Jewish doctor, Issac Rothmann, whom she had befriended and for whom she secretly worked and brought stolen supplies, after he was prohibited from practicing medicine any longer. Daisy Peshkov is also related to the Communist Russian Peshkov family. Her half brother, Greg, the illegitimate son of Lev and Marga, is a capitalist. He knows Lloyd, her husband. They met during the war. Lloyd and the Earl were in the same regiment in the service. Her mother, Olga, also, was pregnant before she married Lev who was her chauffeur. Her Russian cousin Vladimir, (Volodya Peshkov), illegitimate son of Lev, works undercover as a spy for Russia. Greg was involved with the group who developed the atom bomb. Volodya’s wife, Zoya, is a scientist who worked on the Russian bomb. Volodya's sister is married to a brutal member of the secret police, who arrests Zoya, Volodya’s wife, to force Volodya to turn a scientist who worked on The Manhattan Project into a spy, in order to steal the secret of the bomb from America.
Carla has an illegitimate child resulting from being raped by Russian soldiers when they conquered Germany. Boy would have had illegitimate children like his father, but he was infertile from the mumps. Ethel Williams had the illegitimate child of Earl Fitzherbert. Grigori Peshkov takes care of his brother Lev’s illegitimate child, and he raises Volodya as his own, marrying his brother’s pregnant girlfriend Katrina, when Lev runs away to America to escape a murder charge. Daisy was conceived before marriage and would have been illegitimate had her mother not married Lev, who had been her chauffeur. Daisy’s brother has a secret illegitimate son, Georgy, with Jacky Jakes, (her stage name), a young black teen, hired by his father to destroy Dave Rouzrokh, a man he competes with, by creating a sex scandal, falsely accusing him of her rape; Woody falls in love with that man’s daughter, Joanne. She is killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Woody Dewar’s brother Chuck is gay and his sweetheart is Eddie. Chuck is killed during the war. Boy is killed in the fighting in Russia. Every social issue raises its head in this book with every social disgrace sharing the page with honorable behavior. With all of this confusing, highly coincidental information, is it any wonder the story became tedious?
On the positive side, “Winter of the World” certainly shed light on the system of espionage and the acts of betrayal by citizens of a country, often considered treason or allegiance, depending on which way the war went and who was to be the victor or the vanquished. The study of the character and courage of those who sought to defeat Hitler and even Stalin, often at great peril to themselves, was an emotional journey for the reader. Often, hero or villain was determined simply by circumstance of time and place. A man sharing secrets with Russia, to prevent America from becoming dominant, thought he was being patriotic, thought he was saving the world from further death and destruction. Yet he was betraying America and was a traitor. The man betraying his country, Germany, so Russia could defeat Hitler, became a heroic figure, although he, too, was betraying his own country and committing treason. The problem with the book was that these moments of true bravery or cowardice were surrounded by circumstances that required the reader to suspend disbelief in order to feel genuine sympathy and/or respect for the character’s behavior in such a situation. The events were simply not always credible in the way they played out, and often they were too easy to anticipate in advance. The characters were naïve, and although, at times, for obvious reasons, as in Russia, where the citizens were kept ignorant, often they were simply too immature or headstrong and behaved in a ridiculous manner. Perhaps the frenzy that possessed Boy Fitzherbert and Daisy Peshkov was typical, but their presentation was simply not authentic.
In the next book, for sure, each of these characters or their progeny will return to end the trilogy, and each will probably suffer the same fates as their counterparts, over and over again. I was surprised that the author did not mention Israel, although he was discussing the important events of the century. It was completely omitted in the second book, although it goes to the end of 1949. Israel was created in 1948 with war immediately following, which is consistent with the themes in the book. Perhaps it will be a new thread that is picked up in the third and final piece of the trilogy.