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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ken Follett

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To purchase Never

Title: Never
Author: Ken Follett
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 802 pages
Availability: Never - US
Never - UK
Never - Canada
Never - India
Pour rien au monde - France
Never: Die letzte Entscheidung - Deutschland
Per niente al mondo - Italia
Nunca - España

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Our Assessment:

B : a neat idea -- and, where the novel is focused on that, a suspenseful ride

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 23/12/2021 A.Bg.
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/11/2021 Tobias Carroll
Publishers Weekly A 20/8/2021 .
Sunday Times . 7/11/2021 John Dugdale
The Washington Post A 9/11/2021 Bill Sheehan

  From the Reviews:
  • "L’auteur ne s’embarrasse pas de nuances, ni dans l’écriture ni dans la construction psychologique. Mais Pour rien au monde restitue brillamment de grands enjeux géopolitiques contemporains, du djihadisme au spectre inquiétant de la Corée du Nord, dans un récit mené tambour battant, selon une mécanique guerrière implacable." - A.Bg., Le Monde

  • "The preface removes some of the suspense from what follows, and also makes it clear that the counterterrorism plotline in the novel’s early pages isn’t going to be its primary focus. (...) Never isn’t always a subtle book (...) and a subplot about Pauline Green, the U.S. president, watching her marriage implode feels overcrowded. (A greater focus on South Korea’s president, who makes a few globally significant decisions, would have been welcome.) But as climate change threatens to increase political unrest, Follett neatly dramatizes the growing danger with references to famine in North Korea and lakes drying out in Chad." - Tobias Carroll, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a powerful, commanding performance from one of the top writers in the genre." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Never is both an up-to-the-minute thriller that explores the tensions and conflicts of the modern world and a sprawling, globe-spanning saga that contains multitudes. (...) Never is a cautionary tale about the power of unintended consequences, and it is disturbing and illuminating in equal measure. Follett has always been an accomplished storyteller, but his latest reflects a sense of urgency that lifts it well above typical apocalyptic thrillers. Never is first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. It deserves the popular success it will almost certainly achieve." - Bill Sheehan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Never is set essentially in the present-day, the world much as we know it with mostly just the names of those in power different. The American president is one of the main figures, the (old- rather than Trump-style) Republican Pauline Green. At four feet eleven inches she is the shortest ever to hold that office, but she is a commanding-enough figure. As can be expected, her job, leading the free world, keeps her very busy; one of the consequences is that she and husband Gerry, who is ten years her senior, seem to be drifting apart, not least because of their different approaches to raising fourteen-year-old daughter Pippa, who seems to be getting evermore adolescently rebellious.
       Pauline has some domestic issues to deal with -- notably a rapidly rising Republican challenger, the blowhard Senator James Moore who is a firm believer in the United States throwing around its might much more aggressively. As things slowly heat up the fact that: "public opinion likes James Moore's nuke-'em-all approach" doesn't make her job any easier. There's also her vice president Milton Lapierre, whom Pauline has to push out of his position because of the obvious liability he makes himself, by actions that, though technically not illegal (by a hair), are certainly wildly inappropriate.
       Several other figures and locales also figure prominently in the story. There is CIA agent Tamara Levit, just turning thirty and stationed in Chad, where she reports to less-than-competent head of station Dexter Lewis. Another CIA officer is Beirut-born Abdul John Haddad, working in disguise in this area of Africa, who winds up tracking a large cocaine shipment as well as trying to find the bases of the local jihadis, the ISGS, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. There's also some local color with young widowed mother Kiah, who realizes there's little hope for her left in Chad and makes the decision to try to get to Europe. She puts herself and her still nursing son in the hands of a people smuggler -- winding up on the same bus as the (trying-to-stay-)undercover Abdul for the difficult and dangerous journey through the desert and north to the Mediterranean and then Europe.
       Elsewhere, there is Chang Kai, "vice minister for international intelligence" in China's Ministry for State Security, the Guoanbu. The forty-five-year-old Kai is married to a leading actress, the much younger Tao Ting, while his father, Chang Jianjun, is vice chairman of the National Security Commission -- very much of the old and much more militant guard.
       The novel moves between these figures as they deal with a variety of situations. Much is on a personal level: Tamara begins an affair with a French counterpart from the DGSE, Tabdar Sadoul, in Chad; Pauline is in the process of reëvaluating her relationship with her husband; Kai has to fend off personal attacks on himself and his wife as part of the power-games being played in the ministry; Kiah struggles to keep herself and her son safe and make a better future for them -- and inevitably gets closer to Abdul on their long, dangerous journey together. Yes, Never is a busy novel -- and that's even before we get to the cascade of geopolitical incidents that touch the lives of all these characters as well.
       Follett prefaces his novel with a short note explaining what led him to spin out the scenario that then follows, noting that he had come to the realization that: "the First World War was a war that nobody wanted", that it was just a series of decisions made by the various leaders across Europe that, even as they seemed, step by step, to be: "logical, moderate decisions", led ultimately to catastrophe. He concludes: "I wondered: could that happen again ?" So we know what to expect from Never from the get-go ..... And, indeed, the first part of the novel is titled 'DEFCON 5' -- the lowest level of the United States Armed Forces defense readiness condition states -- and the parts that follow are a countdown to the highest level of readiness, all the way to the last (which, he reminds us, is: "Nuclear war is imminent or has already started").
       Fairly deep into the story, Pauline sighs: "Every catastrophe begins with a little problem that doesn't get fixed". The problems, even to that point, have mostly seemed fairly small -- the usual local unrest and disorder bubbling across the world at any given time. There are those jihadi camps in northern central Africa that need to be found and neutralized. There's a North Korean connection, supplying arms to the jihadis -- including, worryingly, rather bigger firepower than just the usual small arms. A relatively minor incident involves an American being killed by a jihadi -- but with a Chinese rifle, leading the Americans to take minor steps to make their displeasure about Chinese arms making their way here clear.
       The situation in Chad threatens to escalate, with Sudanese support of local rebels raising tensions. A number of incidents, including an assassination attempt on the Chadian dictator, can be more or less defused, but each side keeps tit-for-tatting.
       Along the way, an armed US drone goes missing -- with Tamara's boss Dexter once again missing the boat by not being overly concerned about it -- and, next thing you know, there are some Chinese casualties. Even though it's clear the Americans are not directly to blame, the fact that it was a US drone that was involved means the Chinese have to respond in some form. And even though everyone also tries to make a point of keeping things within certain bounds -- sending a message by retaliating in some appropriate form, but trying hard to avoid any sense of escalation -- there's a creeping sense of rising tensions and belligerence. It doesn't help that the situation in notoriously unstable North Korea -- a thorn in everyone's side -- starts getting out of hand .....
       It's a slow spiral of events -- the story stays at DEFCON 1-level for almost half its length -- but spiral, ever downward, they do. Some of the connections are very loose -- the North Korean role in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example -- but pretty much each little bit has some knock-on effects. Follett plays this out fairly well: there's probably way too much about about Kiah and Abdul -- to the extent that it can feel like a nearly complete thriller of its own that Follett grafted onto this one -- but beyond that the chains of events are fairly solid, the tension slowly but inexorably rising and rising.
       For a long time, Never feels like a start-and-stop thriller, relatively small crises unfolding but then mostly held in check or reined in. Only cumulatively is their effect all out of proportion: Follett takes his time with his snowball-effect -- but once it reaches a certain size and things get really rolling, boy, do they come hard and fast. Follett shows how easily governments can find themselves boxed in, seeing no way out except taking the next step, even as it's clear that that will likely lead to disaster.
       Follett does rely on some of the leaders acting (even) more independently than might be realistic -- notably South Korean President No -- and generally all the governments involved take a more consistently hard line than has been the case in recent decades (though in many cases that maybe realistic; the Chinese, for example, while always touchy, seem more willing to throw around more weight than they used to, for example). Necessarily, Follett's sweep can't be too broad, but in his close focus on certain characters and events there is quite a lot that is not addressed, including, for example, Russia, which has practically no role to play here and goes almost entirely unmentioned. Even some of the menaces and issues he has raised are left to peter out: James Moore's bluster drifts further and further into the background, the replacement-vice-president barely rates a mention, and Pauline and Gerry's marital troubles remain an entirely domestic issue. In some cases, one wonders why he raised them in the first place; they ultimately feel like rather flabby red herrings.
       The wide-sweeping story means that Follett picks and chooses what to pay attention to, with some of the things he sets up getting a bit lost along the way. The vice presidential position in American government is admittedly an often almost negligible one -- beyond as a tie-breaking vote in an evenly divided Senate and, of course, as the replacement, should anything happen to the president -- but Milton Lapierre is fairly casually disappeared by Follett, with Pauline telling him what he has to do and considerably later readers learning simply:

He had resigned, and Pauline had nominated a replacement vice president, who was now going through the process of being approved by both Houses of Congress.
       Follett treats the selection of the new vice president like a minor cabinet appointment, though surely it would play out more loudly in real life; at the very least, one would expect James Moore to try to make some hay out of the situation. As is, a new vice president is apparently confirmed but barely even registers in the story. (Milt, meanwhile, immediately slips into a cushy job as director of a lobbying firm.)
       There is something to be said for Follett's very tight focus on his main cast of characters, with the others -- even the in some case more powerful figures -- mostly remaining in the periphery of the novel -- but in some cases he does spend an awfully long time on events that are largely themselves peripheral (including so much about Kiah, as well as Tamara and Tabdar's romance (which comes complete with meet-the-parents scenes and the like)).
       Romantic feelings and more or less decorous sexual urges play an outsize role in much of the story, with many of the characters having romantic partners on their mind. Tamara and Tab (as he's called) hooking up is the most prominent pairing, but there are others -- including Pauline's suspicion about what her husband is getting up to (and her own wandering eye ...). The characters' mooning over each other is not one of Follett's strengths, but he keeps trying -- leading to scenes such as one where a woman buys some new clothes and shows the man in her life what she's purchased -- and:
However, when she put on the white bra and panties they both realized they had to make love immediately.
    Afterward he dressed in his new suit. It was time to return to the real world.
       Even at times of considerable (geopolitical) crisis, president Pauline can get distracted:
A woman's heart can be an unexploded bomb, she thought. Handle me delicately, Gus, so that I don't detonate. If you just bring together the wrong pair of wires I could blow
       Tamara, too, can get carried away, like when she's watching Tab at what is a more or less official briefing:
Leaning over the map with a pencil in his hand and his forelock tumbling over his eyes, he looked irresistibly attractive, and Tamara wanted to take him to bed then and there.
       To bed !
       Maybe it humanizes the characters. (Maybe, also, not.) In any case, often as not, it feels rather awkward. (At least Follett doesn't venture into actual sex-scenes, skirting the act itself -- though readers are not spared one telephone exchange that includes the confession: "Now you've made me wet"; fortunately that's as far as he/it goes.)
       When Follett notes that: "Tamara had passed the firearms course top of the class, but she had never fired a weapon. She would be happy to keep it that way", it doesn't take much to guess what happens pretty much next; Never is that kind of novel, not even bothering with even just Chekhovian restraint. So, yes, it's all a bit simplistic -- the writing and the relationships, especially. But there is something to it all: Follett does quite convincingly show how small incidents can get, with their often unintended or unexpected knock-on effects, completely out of hand -- and he does this very well. The way things unfold, with these small crises that seem to be, more or less, contained and yet prove just to be dominoes falling really is quite well done -- and makes for a decently gripping read. Admirably, too, Follett doesn't go for the easy or out-of-the-blue fix in his conclusion, instead taking things the only place they can go -- making for a satisfying (if also deeply disturbing) ending.
       If somewhat bloated in some of the African parts and with a rather ham-fisted effort to emphasize the human side of the characters, Never is otherwise a fairly solid thriller. Follett's thought-experiment is certainly an interesting one, and plays out all too realistically, making for some worrying food for thought.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 October 2021

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Never: Reviews: Ken Follett: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bestselling British author Ken Follett was born in 1949.

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© 2021 the complete review

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