This chunky geopolitical thriller by Ken Follett — his first contemporary novel in years — weaves together several plot lines in order to portray a chain of frighteningly plausible events that lead to nuclear war. It’s speculative fiction at its terrifying best, reminiscent of Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising,” and Mark Greaney’s “Red Metal.”
“Never” is crammed with incident, but its breadth of activity and ping-ponging perspectives belies a neat, assured and ultimately straightforward structure that ensures its narrative never becomes inordinately convoluted. It’s a jam-packed cast, but Follett keeps things focused on five principals, including the American President, a high-ranking Chinese Intelligence official, a CIA operative running an agent undercover in Chad, who becomes embroiled in the lives of a widow and her child desperate to escape Islamic State by any means necessary.
The focus here is on plot rather than character, obviously; this is a step-by-step depiction of a path to possible oblivion. But Follett obligingly dips into his characters’ personal lives, peeling back their layers of angst and emotion as tension escalates (alongside the DEFCON level), so they’re far more human than Clancy’s Jack Ryan or John Clark ever were.
I raced through “Never,” eager to see how nuclear war might be avoided; and when I was done, all I wanted to know was — what next? It’s a rollicking, sprawling thriller weighted by the credibility of its premise.