Known these days for his bestselling historical blockbusters, Ken Follett returns with his first contemporary thriller in over a decade. It’s a biggie – Never sees the world on the brink of World War III and Follett’s portrayal of a brewing global conflagration is plausible and chilling. More so because everything that happens is the result of mishap and circumstance rather than belligerence. The nuclear superpowers, rivals and potential enemies, are caught up in a situation that spirals out of control. No one wants to back down, and it becomes increasingly difficult to halt the momentum towards a cataclysmic confrontation.
Follett got the idea for Never from World War I, when nations fell into war rather than engineering it, as with German and Japanese aggression before World War II, for instance. The novel starts with a geo-political situation that reflects current affairs, then things ramp up incrementally. Tensions lead to points of frustration and conflict. Each stage increasing the severity of the division and mistrust.
Of course, the idea that we could wind up in another world war by accident goes back to the 1950s. Eugene Burdick’s 1962 novel Fail-Safe is a prime example. However, the scenario of Never is bang up to date and it encompasses an strong analysis of the geo-political situation. Follett has drawn on the experience and knowledge of many political friends for the authentic feel of the plot.
Follett takes his time exploring the complexity of international relations and how the superpowers act across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia. He develops intriguing characters and situations and spends time on the fine detail, including the Chinese take, which may be less familiar to us. Follett gets us care to about the people in the book and appreciate their roles in the vastness of events. This makes for a long and steady read. For those who enjoy the Welsh author’s style this will be a very comfortable experience but if you want the kind of thriller that gets straight to the heart of the action, this blockbuster might be a bit ponderous for you.
There are three main strands to the story. In America the first female president, Republican Pauline Green, is visiting a safe site in Maryland. This is where she will be spirited away to in the event of a nuclear war. The thought that runs through Green’s mind is that if she winds up here again she will have failed at her job. It doesn’t seem likely, the US is at DEFCON 5, the lowest security level.
In Africa Abdul John Haddad is a CIA spy in the field, working in Chad and Sudan. Haddad is tracking terrorists and drug smugglers across the region. The two threats often come from the same people. He is hunting a terrorist known as the Afghan, and despite being most wanted al-Farabi has so far avoided capture. Following a lead Haddad joins the migrant route to Europe – he will have to get close to the jihadis to get to his man.
In Beijing, China, Chang Kai, Vice Minister for International Intelligence, a member of the Communist party elite, will be critical in analysing the American stance as events ramp up. For now he has to watch his back as rivals are using his wife to get at him. She has been implicated in rumours of loose talk about the leaders at Beautiful Films studios where she works. This time Kai is able to put the Foreign Secretary’s mind at rest. Kai will be a key player in the coming storm.
Things escalate when a US drone goes missing, there’s a chemical stash and a situation develops in North Korea and the South China Sea. American president Green, Chinese analyst Kai and terrorist hunter Haddad all work tirelessly to protect the peace but soon they will be battling a chain reaction.
Never has a very credible scenario and is well-plotted. Follett balances the lives of individuals against this huge background of shifting tectonic plates in world affairs very well. He highlights the things people do to survive and how easily they can be undone by our leaders’ follies. This is about losing face, mistrust and mistakes rather than malice. Events are not orchestrated so much as a confluence of tragedy and failure – it’s a sobering read. The tension builds in this ambitious thriller. Will the end of the novel be the actual end of everything?
For a more thriller-oriented, if superficial, approach to global affairs try State of Terror Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny, or Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s collaboration, The President’s Daughter.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
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