I should first say that two of my favourite books of all time are _Pillars Of The Earth_ and _The Winds Of War_.
I had hoped that Follett would do for WWI and the Russian Revolution what Wouk did for WWII. I love these types of historical fiction, where the seemingly-dry events of days past come to life through the eyes of characters and the situations in which they find themselves.
The first third of the book is extremely promising, as Follett brings all the players on stage and uses his superb skill at crafting characters to get the reader invested in this story.
But then the worst thing happens. We get to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and just as that set the world on a collision course, that event does the same thing for the book.
I suspect that Follett wrote this during the same period that he was adapting (poorly) Pillars of the Earth for television. Because once the events unfold in Sarajevo the book turns into a horrible teleplay.
There are still good narrative scenes surrounding the more private dramas of central characters. People give hand jobs in opera houses, have family dustups, all sorts of things one expects to find in a novel. But whenever Something Historical needs to happen, Follett falls back on Teleplay 101. He gets his characters in a room. Dinner Parties, brunches, tea–pick a meal, pick an excuse. Without fail he describes the food briefly and then has two characters on ideological opposing sides start having a “conversation” where he lays out the dueling ideologies of the time. From Sarajevo onward a full third of the book’s text is comprised of expository dialogues set in the dining rooms and restaurants of the world. It feels both incredibly lazy and horribly contrived. This is, in my opinion, where “Show, Don’t Tell” has become a curse to the writing world. Whereas Wouk doesn’t shy away from infodumps in _Winds_, he does so in a way that completely engages the reader. Here Follett is “showing” by means of turning his infodumps into dialog. And it is boring, boring stuff.
Thankfully there are still nuggets of interestingness when he backs away from the “As you know, Bob” method of writing and goes back to the small stories in the lives of his characters. These parts were all that kept me reading past the Battle of the Somme. (Seriously. He reduces one of the bloodiest, most tragic battles of the 20th Century into a brief narrative and a couple dialogue scenes with officers in dugouts. Over tea, of course.)
If the book were smaller, it would have been better. If it were larger it might have been better. As it stands now, it’s only merely a good book because of Follett’s genius with characterisation. If you want a similar read I suggest either Wouk or (even, dare I say it) Jeffrey Archer.
This is only recommended if you REALLY love Follett and are REALLY curious about what one British guy thinks about WWI and the evils of communism.