This is an enormous book, although for its size, it was quick to read. The novel begins in Wales on 22nd June 1911, the day King George V was crowned in London, and in Wales, thirteen year old Billy Williams went down the mine for the first time. Very quickly the reader is drawn into the story which covers events in America, Europe, and Russia as well as the United Kingdom (mostly Wales and London) and a huge range of characters both rich and poor. My favourite character was Ethel, sister of Billy Williams, who, at the start of the story is a housemaid at Ty Gwyn, home of Earl Fitzherbert, who owns the land, under which her brother mines for coal. Follett weaves a good yarn and this story is definitely plot driven - a plot which unfolds against the background of the build-up, course, and aftermath of the First World War. There are love stories, industrial unrest, political dramas, battlefield horrors, class struggles and lots more in this tale. It is delivered in episodes, dealing first with one section of the story, and then another, and strands sometimes coming together in unexpected ways. The characters are witness to historic events including The Battle of the Somme, Lenin's return to Petrograd, Germany signing the Treaty of Versailles to name but three of many and the way that Follett is able to weave fact with fiction is impressive and informative. You do have to suspend your disbelief a bit as the paths of the characters cross time and again, both with each other, and with the historical figures of the time, but it is worth the effort and through this approach to history, you do get a sense of how these events affected the lives of so many different people around the world. There is sometimes a more laboured explanation of things - for example the British parliamentary system, than is strictly necessary, but then this is a work aimed at a global audience not just a UK one and at times the dialogue between the characters seems a bit stilted as they vocalise different positions on issues of the day which can read a bit like a history essay.
Overall though, this is definitely worth reading. It's well-researched, easy to read, and sustains the reader's interest level well throughout. I look forward to reading the next part of this trilogy, although I understand we'll have to wait for that until 2012. Incidentally, I read this book on my Kindle - and having seen the size of the physical version in a bookshop, I am pleased that I didn't have to lug it around with me.
If, like me, you enjoyed the Pillars of the Earth, you'll probably enjoy this as well for it's ability to make history come alive although the historical period in question is very different.