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Originally published Sunday, September 16, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Follett's 'Winter of the World' follows 'Fall of Giants' cast into WWII

"Winter of the World," Ken Follett's second book in his Century Trilogy, follows the families Follett wrote about in "Fall of Giants" as they confront the chaos of World War II.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'Winter of the World'

by Ken Follett

Dutton, 960 pp., $36

It has taken British novelist Ken Follett a mere two years to produce the hefty sequel to his highly successful "Fall of Giants," the first book in a projected Century Trilogy about the 20th century.

Only slightly slimmer at 960 pages, "Winter of the World," like its predecessor, should come with a warning label: "Abandon your normal activities for a couple of days when you crack this one open, because you're likely to get hooked like a Copper River salmon."

Follett adheres to the model of his vast, panoramic "Fall of Giants" in this new book, which — as its title suggests — deals with a particularly wintry epoch in history: the rise of Hitler and Stalin, the flourishing of Fascism and totalitarianism on several continents, and the development of the atomic bomb. There's famine, depression, persecution, betrayal and war. Where portions of the first novel had a "Downton Abbey" feel among the grisly realities of World War I, "Winter of the World," available at booksellers Tuesday, has a grittier atmosphere as it grinds through a portion of history that is all too familiar to many readers.

And, as in the previous book, Follett chooses his historical vignettes well, putting his major figures — essentially, the children of the five international clusters of characters he created for "Fall of Giants" — in harm's way in the most spectacular and iconic fashion. As members of American Senator Dewar's family zoom over the Pacific on their way to Honolulu on Dec. 6, 1941, you want to shout, "Nooooo! Turn around! Don't go there!" But, of course, Follett wants someone on the ground for the Pearl Harbor attacks the following day that catapulted the U.S. into World War II, and placing the Dewars there gives him an ideal entry into the vast and horrific canvas of the Japanese Zeros, the catastrophic explosions and sinkings, and the atmosphere of unrelenting terror of the Day of Infamy.

The book's lengthy opening "cast of characters" list is a little daunting, with its mix of real and fictional persons (from President F.D. Roosevelt right down to "Joe Brekhunov, a thug," and "Jacky Jakes, starlet"). But Follett soon introduces everybody in context, positioning them generally within five national groups — American, English, Russian, German-Austrian and Welsh (that last one is Follett's own ethnic background). He moves from vignette to vignette, placing groups of characters in just the right spots to witness history. Young Carla von Ulrich and her parents experience firsthand the fallout from Hitler's rise to power in 1933, when the Brownshirts (in a nifty symbolic gesture) toss her journalist mother's typewriter out the office window and onto the street below. Crossed in love, student Lloyd Williams leaves London to fight the Fascists in Spain, with near-disastrous results — as he discovers his Communist "allies" aren't an improvement on the Fascist enemies. His heart is lost, however, to the upwardly mobile American socialite Daisy Peshkov, who discovers that in marrying a British nobleman she has allied herself with a Fascist.

The long arm of coincidence is stretched mightily at times, as characters cross continents only to meet again in improbable locations, and often turn out to be related to each other. But somehow Follett pulls all these international threads together — dispensing meanwhile a nasty comeuppance to some of the worst villains. In the final pages, set in 1949, he offers a hopeful future to several characters. Somehow I bet we'll be seeing them again, in Book Three.

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