Cover image of "Never," a novel about a new world war

Ken Follett traced the construction of a great medieval cathedral from the 11th to the 16th centuries in his monumental, four-book Kingsbridge series. In the Century Trilogy, he turned to the history of the two 20th-century world wars and the Depression between them. Now he explores the question whether a devastating conflict like the First World War could happen again even if no leader on either side wants to make it happen. Follett’s latest effort, Never, is a speculative novel set in the 21st century. And in the nuclear age, a new world war could end civilized life. Like his ventures into historical fiction, which sold tens of millions of copies, it seems destined to become a blockbuster.

Four characters to focus a complex tale

Follett’s trademark are sprawling historical novels that run to upwards of 800 pages, and Never fits the bill. But, complex as the story is, he brings it into sharp focus by dramatizing the experiences of a handful of central characters. He moves the tale forward in chapters that alternate from one character to another. Here, four of them play pivotal roles in the plot:

  • US President Pauline Green must deal with crises in the Sahara and Korea amid a sex scandal involving her vice president and her own unraveling marriage. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire primary is five months away, and a Trump-like reactionary is gaining ground in the polls.
  • Chang Tai, the brilliant young “reformer” who heads China’s foreign intelligence agency, struggles to counter the reactionary policies urged by the old men who sit in positions of power within the Communist Party.
  • CIA operations officer Tamara Levit contends with a misogynist boss, a colleague she’s falling in love with, and the impulsive dictator who runs the nation of Chad.
  • Lebanese-American Abdul Haddad is a courageous fellow CIA officer hunting for the headquarters of a vicious and powerful terrorist group in the Sahara. We follow his trail across the desert and to the Mediterranean coast of France, tracking the multimillion-dollar cocaine shipment that finances the terrorists.

Never by Ken Follett (2021) 817 pages ★★★★★  

Image of the entrance to the Chinese Communist Party headquarters, where a new world war might start
One of the gates leading into Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, where many of the crucial decisions portrayed in the novel take place. The compound is one of the most heavily guarded spots on Earth. Image: Xinhua – People’s Daily

Follett shifts the scene around the world and back as tensions rise between the US and China. We visit the Oval Office, the secret White House nuclear bunker, the central office of China’s Guoanbu secret service, and the headquarters of the Communist Party of China, Zhongnanhai. Following Abdul Haddad, we roam across the vast arid expanse of the Sahara Desert. And we find ourselves mired in a growing conflict between North and South Korea as a civil war unfolds within the north. The author steadily builds suspense as the world’s two superpowers stagger toward a confrontation that leaders on both sides are desperate to avoid.

Somehow, Follett manages to paint convincing portraits of all the men and women who feature in speaking roles, not just the four protagonists. We meet a Chinese movie star, a brilliant but unschooled young Arab woman in Chad, the leading members of China’s Central Military Commission, “the General” who is Chad’s dictator, and the members of the American National Security Council, among many others.

Never is not “great literature,” but it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s popular fiction of the highest order, written by a masterful writer at the top of his form. Think Stephen King—not the paragons of literary style who walk away with the Booker Prize.

The historical antecedent

Students of modern history are well aware that World War I started by accident. Of all the major powers involved—the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British, Italian, and French Empires—none set out in the summer of 1914 to start a global war. It happened anyway. The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914, induced the emperor in Vienna to force a war against Serbia a month later. Because of the military alliances that bound each of the major European powers to come to the aid of others, they soon lined up on two sides. The Russians, French, and English constituted the Triple Entente, the Germans, Austrians, and Italians the Triple Alliance. The war ultimately cost an estimated 14 million lives. It also destroyed four storied empires (German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish), and set the stage for the far more destructive Second World War two decades later.

About the author

Image of Ken Follett, author of this novel about a new world war

Ken Follett was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1949. He studied philosophy at University College London, turning to journalism after graduating. His breakthrough writing fiction came with the publication in 1978 of The Eye of the Needle, which sold 10 million copies worldwide, gaining him both fame and a fortune. Every subsequent novel he’s written has been a New York Times bestseller. Most were spy novels. But his biggest success came with the Kingsbridge series, beginning with The Pillars of the Earth in 1989. He is an active fundraiser for the Labour Party, and his second wife served as a Member of Parliament for thirteen years. Never is his 34th novel.

For more reading

For another excellent speculative novel about how a new global war might break out, see 2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis (The Third World War breaks out in 2034, but not how you think).

Previously I reviewed three other novels by Ken Follett:

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