Never by Ken Follett: A tension level that increases with every chapter - book review -
‘Every catastrophe begins with a little problem that doesn’t get fixed.’
This prophetic line by a fictional US president – uttered in the dark heart of master storyteller Ken Follett’s big, bold new thriller – sets the scene perfectly for a terrifyingly plausible scenario that could see the end of the world.
And no, this isn’t a topical story of climate change Armageddon but a chilling, cautionary, contemporary tale that imagines how a series of political acts of aggression, diplomatic blunders and dangerous power play could see nations edging closer and closer to the brink of the unthinkable… full-scale nuclear war.
Forty-three years after Follett’s first thriller, the wartime spy drama Eye of the Needle, became the fuse that lit a stellar writing career, and in the wake of his Century trilogy and the pulsating, groundbreaking Kingsbridge historical novel series, this ever-inventive author springs yet another surprise on his readers.
Inspired by his extensive research which revealed the First World War was a war that nobody wanted, but instead came about through ‘logical, moderate decisions – each of which took us a small step closer to the most terrible conflict the world had ever known,’ Follett ponders whether it could ever happen again.
And it is this fascinating, fearful and all too believable thought process – that major wars can still be sparked by way of ‘a tragic accident’ – which spawned what looks set to be one of the most gripping, disturbing and entertaining novels of 2021.
Set on a world stage that encompasses a spy working undercover with jihadists, a brilliant Chinese spymaster, America’s first female president beleaguered by a populist rival, a game of brinksmanship featuring humanity at its best and its worst, and a compelling exploration of the relationships that form the bedrock of our personal lives, Never is guaranteed to keep readers enthralled right through to the nail-biting finale.
In the Sahara Desert, two elite intelligence agents are on the road from N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad, and on the trail of a powerful group of drug-smuggling terrorists.
Tamara Levit, a CIA agent attached to the American embassy, and Frenchman Tabdar ‘Tab’ Sadoul , an attaché at the European Union Mission, are risking their lives every day and, when they fall desperately in love, their careers are also at risk at every turn.
Nearby, beautiful and determined young widow Kiah, accompanied by her baby son Naji, is resorting to human traffickers to help her travel illegally to Europe. And it’s on a bus heading north to the Mediterranean that she meets the mysterious Abdul John Haddad who is working undercover with the CIA to hunt out drug smugglers and jihadists.
Meanwhile, in China, Chang Kai, a senior government official with vast ambitions for himself and his country, battles against the older Communist hawks in the government who may be pushing China – and its close military ally, North Korea – towards a place of no return.
And in the United States, Pauline Green, the country’s first woman president, navigates terrorist attacks, illegal arms trading, and the smear campaigns of her blustering political opponent, Senator James Moore, with careful and deft diplomacy. She might only be four feet eleven inches tall but she will do everything in her power to avoid starting an unnecessary war.
But when one act of aggression leads to another, the most powerful countries in the world are caught in a complex web of alliances they can’t escape. And once all the sinister pieces are in place, can anyone – even those with the best of intentions and most elite skills – stop the inevitable?
Follett brings his extraordinary visionary talents to this powerful and far-reaching novel which demonstrates how easily and inexorably a nightmare scenario can unfold despite the genuine efforts of those who possess the power to halt any escalation of tensions.
This sweeping, startling and unsettling story is a stark reminder that world peace needs more than threats and diplomacy to keep bombs, bullets and belligerence in check. Never features a series of seemingly unrelated global events which lead insidiously to a perilous confrontation between the two superpowers of America and China.
It’s a trademark Follett-style thumping big novel, taking readers on a thrilling, rollercoaster ride through 800 pages of dazzling storytelling and a whirlwind global tour of human trafficking, international terrorism, national unrest, drug smuggling, military rebellion and government-sponsored espionage.
And there is always time to stop along the way to get to know a cast of complex, exquisitely imagined characters and their individual human stories of love and hate, kindness and cruelty, betrayal and heartbreak as they become (some unwittingly) part of the path that is teetering towards the edge of nuclear insanity.
With a tension level that increases with every chapter – aided cleverly by the use of the US Armed Forces’ DEFCON ‘state of readiness’ level for each section of the book – and the struggles of those caught up in the crises, this is a story that resonates loudly in an uncertain world and holds no clue about how it will end until the last page has turned.
Ken Follett at his magnificent best!
(Macmillan, hardback, £20)