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Literature / The Century Trilogy

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The Century Trilogy is, as the name indicates, a trilogy of novels by Ken Follett which tell the history of the 20th century through the eyes of five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh. The trilogy consists of the following novels:

  1. Fall of Giants (2010): Covers 1911 to 1923, but most of the novel is set during World War I.
  2. Winter of the World (2012): Covering 1933 to 1949, focusing on the rise of the Nazis and World War II
  3. Edge of Eternity (2014): Covering 1961 to 2008, focusing on the Cold War and the American Civil Rights Movement.

The five families are:

  • The Dewar family—aristocrats with high connections in the American government.
  • The Fitzherbert family—ditto, except they're British.
  • The von Ulrich family—ditto, except they're German.
  • The Peshkov family—two Russian peasants, one who emigrates to America and one who stays behind and gets involved in the Russian Revolution.
  • The Williams family—Welsh coal miners, who eventually get into Labour Party politics.

The series as a whole provides examples of:

  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Happens from time to time.
  • Author Tract:
    • Fall of Giants—It sure does seem like Ken Follett is a Labour Party voter.
    • Edge of Eternity—Similarly, Follett makes it very clear that he thinks that the Social Democrats were the heroes of the twentieth century.
  • Been There, Shaped History: The characters often have small but pivotal roles concerning the outcome of crucial historical events.
  • Black Gal on White Guy Drama:
    • In Book 2, Jacky Jakes and Greg Peshkov have an illicit affair.
    • In Book 3, Maria Summers has to keep her affair with a white man a secret, though their ethnicities are by far not the only problem. He is also married. Oh, and by the way, he is also the President of the United States.
  • Black Sheep:
    • In Winter of the World, Erik von Ulrich is the only Nazi in a family of Social Democrats.
    • In Edge of Eternity, Cam Dewar is a Republican, while the rest of his family is rather leftist.
  • Contrived Coincidence / One Degree of Separation:
    • In the first book:
      • Was it pushing things too far for Earl Fitzherbert and Walter von Ulrich to meet each other in no-man's-land on the day of the 1914 Christmas Truce?
      • Or for Gus Dewar and von Ulrich to be on opposite sides of the battle for Chateau-Thierry?
      • Or for Billy Williams and Lev Peshkov to meet in Abewrowen and again in Siberia?
    • In the second book:
      • The same maid serves Daisy Peshkov and is sweet on Lloyd Williams.
      • A Jewish girl who knows the von Ulrich family in Berlin emigrates to America and becomes Daisy Peshkov's friend.
      • And her husband's sister later marries Earl Fitzherbert's younger son.
      • The obnoxious NKVD agent who irritates Volodya Peshkov also turns out to be courting his sister.
      • Daisy's first husband is Boy Fitzherbert, whose mother Beatrice was present for the hanging of her paternal grandfather (something Lev coldly references while meeting Beatrice).
      • The Dewar family goes to Pearl Harbor in time for the Japanese attack.
      • Volodya Peshkov is assigned to help steal the secrets of the atomic bomb while his American half-brother Greg is one of the security officers for the Manhattan project and helps capture the spy who got Volodya the information.
      • And the biggest of all has to be Boy getting shot down right in front of Lloyd.
    • In the third book:
      • Rebecca's first attempt to flee from East Berlin happened the exact day when the communist autorities began to build the Wall.
      • Tanya Dvorkin travels to the Leipzig Book Fair in order to find a publisher who can print her friend's book in the West. That publisher happens to be represented by Anna Murray, the daughter of the Jewish girl mentioned above.
      • When Rebecca travels to Washington as part of the West German government's delegation, George Jakes's Love Interest Maria happens to be part of the American negotiating party. Furthermore, Rebecca's Hungarian boyfriend also meets Dimka at one point.
      • Dave Williams' guest in his TV show's first episode is the father of his cousin George's (other) Love Interest Verena.
      • Everyone and their mother seems to have a television set by Franck, the company owned by Rebecca's and Walli's father.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: A Ken Follett trademark.
  • Historical Domain Character: Many. The POV characters wind up interacting with most of the Great Men of their era.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage:
    • In the second book, white guy Greg Peshkov falls in love with black girl Jacky Jakes, and knocks her up, but doesn't marry her due to society's dim view of interracial marriage in The '40s.
    • In the third book, Verena's parents, wherein the father is black and the mother is white. Due to them being celebrities, everyone tries to be polite around them, but the discrimination is nevertheless noticeable.
  • The Mistress: Lev Peshkov has several over the course of two books.
    • Boy Fitzherbert has two in Winter—a mother-daughter pair, no less.
    • In the third book Maria is a mistress of John F. Kennedy (one of several).
  • Sequel Hook: Fall of Giants ends with some bitter Germans taking interest in a rabble-rousing politician named Adolf Hitler.
    • Winter of the World ends with the Cold War well underway (the Soviets detonate a nuclear bomb, and the Berlin Airlift marks the end of any trace of cooperation between the Soviets and the West).
  • Shout-Out: In Giants Fitz sees a church from the year 1000 and wonders why people are interested in old churches.
    • This may also be a subtle bit of characterization from cathedral enthusiast Ken Follett, since Earl Fitzherbert is the closest thing to an antagonist that the first book has.
    • In Winter, Joanne says her hangover feels like the Black Death.
  • Spiritual Successor: To The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. After writing thrillers and spy novels for most of his career, Follett told the story of 12th and 14th century England (respectively) through those two novels about the residents of a fictional English town called Kingsbridge. The Century Trilogy is recounting the events of the 20th century through a similar narrative style.
  • Switching P.O.V.:
    • Giants has eight POV characters—Gus Dewar, Earl Edward Fitzherbert and his sister Maud, Walter von Ulrich, brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov, and Billy Williams and his sister Ethel.
    • Winter has a new set of of POV characters—the children of the first set. This time it's Woody and Chuck Dewar, Daisy and Greg Peshkov (Lev's children), Lloyd Williams (love child of Earl Fitzherbert and Ethel), Carla and Erik von Ulrich, and Volodya Peshkov (Grigori's son). The only POV character outside of the original circle is Thomas Macke, a Gestapo officer.
    • And Eternity continues this with their children: Carla's kids Walli, Lili and Rebecca, Woody Dewar's son Cam, Lloyd and Daisy Williams' son Dave, Greg Peshkov's son George Jakes, and Volodya Peshkov's niece and nephew Tanya and Dimka Dworkin. (These last two are the kids of Volodya's sister and her NKVD husband, which means yes, they are descending from one of the last book's villains!) Two additional POV characters are Jasper Murray, the son of Carla's and Daisy's friend Eva Rothmann, and Maria Summers, George Jakes' Love Interest.
  • The Von Trope Family: The von Ulrichs.

Fall of Giants provides examples of:

  • Dramatic Irony: At the end of the novel, Maud greets news of the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch with a relieved "Thank God that's over."
  • Groin Attack: Lev Peshkov kicks a thug in the nuts.
  • Historical In-Joke: Fitz makes a comment about how Bolshevism should be "strangled at birth". A visiting Winston Churchill likes that turn of phrase.
  • Hustling the Mark: Lev Peshkov does this to Gus Dewar in Petrograd.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Earl Fitzherbert and his wife are struggling to conceive but the earl knocks up maid Ethel Williams pretty quickly.
  • Love Across Battlelines: Walter and Maud, being German and British respectively during WWI.
  • One Head Taller: Gus towers over Rosa, as he is very tall and she is rather petite.
  • Riches to Rags: Rich, aristocratic Lady Maud Fitzherbert winds up playing a piano in a seedy German bar after her brother cuts her off and her husband's family is ruined by the war.
  • Shot at Dawn: The unfortunate fate of a fifteen-year-old boy who panics and bolts as troops are assembling to go over the top at the Somme.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Lev receives this after impregnating the daughter of his powerful and Russian-mafia style employer

Winter of the World provides examples of:

  • Adorably Precocious Child: Woody.
  • Best Served Cold: Billy Williams gets a decades-long revenge against the Fitzherberts by getting the grounds of their ancestral estate torn up.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed
    "Oh, how nice... I may need two hands, though." (Joanne, upon undressing Woody)
  • Book Ends: Political meetings are violently interrupted in Berlin in 1933, at the beginning of the book, and 1949, at the end of the book.
  • Bury Your Gays: Robert's lover is brutally killed by fascists at the beginning of the book and Chuck dies fighting in WWII.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The original Day Of The Jackboot, as fascism takes over Germany.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Carla names her son Walter, after his grandfather. (By the time of Edge of Eternity, he just gets called Walli by everyone.)
  • Evil Versus Evil: Much is made of the fact that the Nazis and the Communists are about equally horrible and frequently oddly similar in their methods and outlooks despite hating each other with a passion. Old-school conservatives/capitalists are treated as something of a third antagonist faction, though they are presented somewhat more sympathetically.
  • Falsely Advertised Accuracy: Erik von Ulrich, a Wehrmacht medic, is extremely aghast after witnessing SS murdering civilians, implying that Wehrmacht had no idea about German atrocities. This is called "Myth of clean Wehrmacht" (Mythos der Saubere Wehrmacht) and is a thoroughly debunked lie made up by Germans after World war 2, in order to shift the blame completely on Hitler and few high-ranking nazis. Wehrmacht and even German police routinely took part in worst atrocities, including mass murders of POWs and civilians and even sent letters about it back home (Timothy Snyder - Black Earth), so Germans did know everything or almost everything. What is even worse is the fact that soldiers basically weren't punished for refusing orders to commit atrocities (another myth, called Befehlsnotstand, was made up after the war as a method of defense at courts with lower ranking war criminals, and unfortunately mostly succeeded in getting them off the hook.
  • General Ripper: While Volodya's Army Intelligence boss is occasionally willing to criticize the NKVD and their methods with him he isn't much better. After a contact cuts ties with them out of anger fo the NKVD accidentally arresting and torturing his girlfriend, the general is seen planning to force the guy back by arresting the girlfriend again and threatening to torture her even worse despite knowing she's innocent. Later, near the end of the book he authorizes making Volodya's wife The Scapegoat for America developing the Atom bomb first, lets her be arrested under humiliating circumstances and threatens to execute her unless Volodya goes to America and steals the secrets of the American bomb.
  • Generation Xerox: The main character this time are the kids of the first book's protagonists, who largely tend to follow in their footsteps.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Carla von Ulrich decides to keep the baby after being impregnated by a Red Army soldier who raped her.
  • Hazy-Feel Turn: Devoted Nazi Erik turns against them upon seeing firsthard proof of their mass murders...and promptly becomes just as devoted to Communism.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Boy Fitzherbert is a Blackshirt during the '30s, but joins the RAF when war is declared. Not that this makes him any less of a jerk.
  • Heel Realization: Erik has this for himself and the entire nation of Germany after seeing an Einsatzgruppe committing mass murder of civilians in Russia.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Colonel Bobrov, a Soviet officer in the Spanish Civil War who shoots several men for retreating from a hopeless situation, calling them cowards. He later tries to flee Moscow ahead of the Germans rather than staying to fight, and is beaten to death by an angry mob.
  • "Heroic" BSOD: Josef Stalin, out of all people! After Hitler breaks the non-aggression treaty between the USSR and Germany, Stalin retreats to his dacha and shuts down any contact to the outside world. The Peshkovs and several other high-ranking Soviets have to come and snap him out of it. (Though it may or may not have been a Xanatos Gambit by Stalin, in order to secure his position as leader even after this disaster.)
  • Heroic Bastard: Lloyd Williams is this, crusading against Fascism throughout the book, from the British Union of Fascists march in London, to the Spanish Civil War, to World War II.
  • Identical Grandson: Lloyd's true parentage gets revealed after Daisy discovers that he looks strikingly similar to Earl Fitzherbert's dad.
  • Jizzed in My Pants: This happens at a very, very inconvenient time. Maud Fitzherbert seduced a young German officer in order to receive pieces of information and transmit them to German resistance. She intended to have sex with him in order to divert him from his bag and allow Carla von Ulrich to photograph the plan he is carrying. But, as he came too soon, his attention wandered from Maud, and he wound up busting Carla.
  • La Résistance: Lloyd Williams works with the original.
  • Nazi Nobleman: Erik von Ulrich is technically this, but his parents' lifestyle is not very typical for aristocrats. Ironically, a straighter example would be his cousin Boy Fitzherbert's short stint at being a British Union Of Fascists Nobleman.
  • Nazi Protagonist: Erik von Ulrich (initially) and Thomas Macke.
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: The anti-semitic Boy Fitzherbert is awful to the Jewish Eva when she marries his friend Jimmy (refusing to attend the wedding, which ends his and Jimmy's friendship). Then his brother marries Jimmy's sister, making them relatives by marriage (although to his credit, having a Jew as a sister in law does cause Boy to tone down his prejudice, at least in public).
  • Porn Stash: Daisy finds her husband's.
  • Post-Injury Desk Job: Colonel Beck, who is reassigned to staff headquarters in Berlin after losing a lung on the Eastern Front.
  • POW Camp: Lloyd Williams finds himself in one in 1940.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: Volodya Peshkov loses one of his contact for the GRU (a foreign diplomat in Moscow) because the NKVD (political police and concurrent Russian intelligence service) arrested said diplomat's girlfriend.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Daisy Peshkov gets Boy Fitzherbert to propose to her by taking advantage of his odd interest in her dressing like a man. Though it doesn't count as Sweet on Polly Oliver, as it's never a secret.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Daisy, whose husband is a complete scumbag.
  • Those Wacky Nazis
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pinksy, the nasty police officer who was the major villain of Grigori's story in Giants, appeared to be set up to continue to be a problem in the second, but is nowhere to be found (chances are that he was killed either in the Russian Civil War or during Stalin's purges).
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Lev Peshkov sets one of these up in order to ruin a business rival.

Edge of Eternity provides examples of:

  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Embarrassing spouse in the form of Cam Dewar's Polish wife during a high society dinner in the US.
  • America Saves the Day: Averted. During the Soviet collapse, Cam Dewar's colleague points out that the USA has actually contributed rather little to the fall of communism, in spite of all their efforts, which often even proved to be counterproductive.
  • As You Know: "Mom, the Supreme Court has ruled that segregation on interstate buses and bus stations is unconstitutional—but those Southerners just defy the law." Followed a couple paragraphs later by "You grew up privileged. At least, you did after your white father came back into our lives when you were six years old."
  • Book Ends: Excluding the very short final chapter serving as a Distant Finale, the story begins right before the building of the Berlin Wall and ends when the Wall collapses.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Lloyd considers his son Dave to be this, because he knows that he is not stupid, but can't quite understand why Dave does care more for playing guitar than learning for school. Many years later, Dave's own son John Lee gets diagnosed with dyslexia, and Dave figures that this must have been the actual reason for his problems too.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Dimka intentionally tries to evoke this when it comes to the confrontation between him and Natalya's gangster husband. It works, but the narration makes it clear that Dimka himself is feeling scared as Hell the whole time.
  • Call-Back: 28 years after a segregationist broke Freedom Rider George Jakes' arm in Anniston, AL in 1961, that same segregationist comes to Congressman George Jakes' office to apologize.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome:
    • Erik von Ulrich, one of the surviving viewpoint characters from Winter of the World, and the uncle of three of the viewpoint characters in this book, never even gets mentioned here.
    • Frieda Franck, who was a significant secondary character in the second book and the aunt of the same three viewpoint characters. (Her brother Werner is married to Erik's sister Carla, and their children are the protagonists now.)
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: The CIA (for whom Cam Dewar is working) doesn't get away very well in this book. The FBI too at first, but after the death of J. Edgar Hoover, they start taking their job seriously and investigate against Richard Nixon.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Nina's hands are shaking while she lights a cigarette after Dimka confronts her about her adultery.
  • Cool Old Guy and Cool Old Gal: Most viewpoint characters from Fall of Giants come off as this, due to the plot now being told from the perspective of their grandkids.
  • The Coup: Nikita Khrushchev is sacked in 1964. Dimka is pleased that neither he nor his boss Khruschev are murdered.
  • Distant Finale: The last chapter ends with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, while the epilogue takes place at the start of Barack Obama's presidency in 2008, thus skipping the entire 90s and most of the 2000s.
  • Expy: Evie Williams' trip to North Vietnam is clearly meant to evoke the one Jane Fonda took in Real Life.
  • Free-Love Future: In The '60s, Beep Dewar believes that this utopia has been achieved now. Dave Williams, her boyfriend at this time, catches her in bed with Walli Franck and strongly disagrees.
  • Gold Digger:
  • Happy-Ending Massage: Lonely bachelor Cam Dewar gets these.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Earl Fitzherbert has mellowed out considerably in his old age. He's introduced warmly congratulating his former maid and old flame Ethel on being given a peerage, and finally wants to be part of his illegitimate son and grandson's lives.
  • Informed Judaism: Jasper and Anna Murray are Jewish on their mother's side, but this fact rarely gets brought up. Rebecca's biological parents have been Jews too, but because she has been adopted and raised by the non-Jewish family Franck, this is a Justified Trope in her case.
  • The Pete Best: In-Universe. Dave Williams's band "Plum Nellie" has two: the unreliable guy Walli Franck has to replace during the band's stay in Hamburg, and Dave's cousin Lenny - the founder of the band!
  • Ramming Always Works: Walli escapes into West Berlin by driving a truck right through the barrier at the border gate. Unfortunately, he kills a border guard in the process, which means that, apart from the feelings of guilt this is causing him, he can't go back to East Germany without the risk of getting arrested for murder.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica:
    • Early in the story, the TASS reporter Tanya Dvorkin gets punished by being resigned to Cuba - just in time for witnessing the Cuban Missile Crisis firsthand.
    • Something similar happens later to Jasper Murray: As punishment for all too critical news reports, the TV channel he works for fires him, and the only job he can get after that is as correspondent in Europe - shortly before the Hole in Flag revolutions are about to start.
  • State Sec: Hans Hoffmann is a Stasi agent with a personal grudge against the Franck family.
  • Tangled Family Tree: By the end of the trilogy, all five main families have intermarried. John Lee is even directly blood-related to four of these families! His family tree goes like this. 
  • There Is Only One Bed: How Dimka and Natalya wind up having sex. After an emergency conference at the Kremlin during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they go looking for a place to sleep and find one old bed in a furniture storeroom.
  • Three-Way Sex: Walli gets with two groupies but can't climax because he's too depressed about Karolin dumping him.
  • "Well Done, Dad!" Guy: Greg Peshkov tries to reconcile with his son George (successfully), Fitz with his son Lloyd (less successfully, but he manages to build up a relationship to his grandson Dave), and when Lev Peshkov meets his son Volodya for the first time, he tells him that he (the son) hasn't missed much, but he (the father) has.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Carla's brother Erik is shown in the family tree at the beginning of the book, but never mentioned in the story at any point.