60 pages 2 hours read

Ken Follett


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2021

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Summary and Study Guide


Ken Follett’s best-selling thriller Never (2021) is an epic tale of geopolitical tensions, terrorism, and espionage, with focus on a global scale. Its action shifts from the Saharan Desert in Africa to the United States, North Korea, and China and is set in a contemporary world sliding closer to the brink of nuclear war. The novel, which focuses extensively on contemporary geopolitical conflicts, weaves together multiple sub-plots and is in line with the author’s other historical series, such as the Century Trilogy or the Kingsbridge Series, which features his well-known Pillars of the Earth (1989). It also harkens back to his roots and his much sparser espionage thrillers such as Eye of the Needle (1978) and The Key to Rebecca (1980). The novel and its multiple subplots follow the efforts of spies, diplomats, and world leaders as they pursue illegal substance-smuggling terrorists and attempt to contain rogue actors and maintain the balance of power between the US and China in what becomes an inevitable progression toward nuclear war. Important themes explored in the novel include The Ethics and Counterproductivity of Diplomacy and International Relations, Globalization and the Threat of Nuclear War in the 21st Century, and Stereotypes of Women and Power.

This guide uses the hard cover edition by Viking Press.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide refer to sexual violence against women as well as statutory rape and sexual relations between a man and an underage girl. The novel also contains depictions of human trafficking, brothels, sexism, misogyny, PTSD, racism, terrorism, murder, and a hate crime, and engages in stereotypes of Muslim peoples, particularly stereotypes about them being terrorists.

Plot Summary

The story opens with a Prologue set in the colloquially named Munchkin Country, an underground facility that could house important members of the US government in case of catastrophic disasters such as a nuclear war. Pauline Green, the President of the United States, is introduced, and her subplot is one of four followed throughout the novel.

The novel is divided into five sections, each named after a DEFCON (or “defense readiness condition”) alert system used by the United States Armed Forces to track levels of the threat of nuclear war. The novel starts with the normal, or “lowest state of readiness” (9), DEFCON 5 and escalates to DEFCON 1, in which “nuclear war is imminent or has begun” (727).

Chapter 1 is set in Chad, a land-locked country on the crossroads of Central and North Africa. In an impoverished village bordering Lake Chad are American CIA operative Tamara Levit and her French counterpart in the European Union Mission, Tabdar “Tab” Sadoul. They have come to make contact with a CIA operative named Abdul “John” Haddad, who is on the trail of a shipment of cocaine terrorists are smuggling to Europe through the desert. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is the terrorist group, led by a man named Al-Farabi. Abdul’s mission is to trace the drugs to Al-Farabi’s headquarters, called the Hole, or Hufra in Arabic. In the village they meet Kiah, the beautiful young widow and mother of Naji. Kiah has decided to try to make the dangerous journey to Europe to seek a better life for herself and her young son. These characters lead two additional subplots the text develops. The first is the diplomatic and romantic subplot of Tamara and Tab, and the second is the intersecting adventurous and romantic subplot of Abdul and Kiah. Chapter 6 introduces the final subplot, that of the Chinese spy Chang Kai and the North Korean rebellion.

Early action focuses on Chad itself, where in addition to the substance-smuggling terrorist storyline, tensions between Chad and its neighbor Sudan erupt, leading to the revelation that North Korea and China were involved in supplying munitions to the Sudanese. The US decides to punish China indirectly by cracking down on sanction violations involving North Korea, China’s dependent and subordinate ally. This creates an opening for a rebel group within North Korea to stage a military overthrow. Kai is privy to their activities because he has an asset within the group, a North Korean military officer who is illicitly building a secret life in China for himself and his daughter. Meanwhile, Kiah, whose male cousin backed out of going to Europe with her, decides to go with a recruiter seeking women to work in a restaurant in the city. The restaurant turns out to be a brothel, and while Kiah is able to safely escape, she decides she will attempt the dangerous trip across the desert without the protection of a male escort. Abdul joins the smuggler’s bus as Hakim, the smuggler, is transporting not only migrants but also terrorists and the cocaine they are guarding.

Back in the United States, President Green is facing her own difficulties, both political and personal. Her vice president resigns ahead of news breaking that he was having an affair with a teenager. A right-wing ideologue within her own Republican party is challenging her, and she is becoming estranged from her own teenage daughter and husband, whom she increasingly suspects is having an affair. To further complicate her life, she realizes her feelings for her confidant Gus Blake, head of the National Security Agency (NSA), go well beyond those of friendship.

Life is heating up for Tamara on several fronts: romantically with Tab, antagonistically with her boss Dexter, and militarily as Chinese-backed Sudanese rebels attack a refugee camp on the Chadian side of the border during a diplomatic visit. An American drone goes missing, and while Tamara’s Chadian asset Karim Aziz denies the Chadian president possesses it, it is used by Chad to bomb Port Sudan as retaliation against the refugee camp attack. Port Sudan was the site of a Chinese-funded and run infrastructure development, and the drone attack kills several Chinese nationals, including families of the engineers. This leads to a series of tit-for-tat actions between China and the US, sometimes performed indirectly by or on their allies, such as North or South Korea. The moderate Kai works behind the scenes to temper the more radical voices of those in his government, like his own father, whose hardline communist beliefs and memories of historical insults the West inflicted on China cause them to demand direct and escalating military responses each time.

The next section of the book is called “DEFCON 4,” which signifies “above normal readiness” for the US military (285). The smuggler Hakim brings Abdul, Kiah, and the other migrants on the bus to an illegal gold mining camp in Libya. The terrorists, assisted by North Korean engineers, run the camp. The terrorists enslave the migrants, forcing them to work in the mines. Abdul is thrilled that he has discovered Hufra, the terrorist headquarters. Yet he knows that if he does not escape, he, along with Kiah, whom the terrorists have moved into a makhur, or brothel, will remain enslaved in the gold mine until they die.

The North Korean rebels have taken over several military installments, two of which have nuclear missiles. Some elements in the Japanese government want to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. The Chinese decide to indirectly attack the US as they believe the US did to them by tightening sanctions against North Korea and allowing Chad to use a US drone to attack Port Sudan. The Chinese sink a Vietnamese ship that was prospecting for oil in disputed waters, killing and capturing American geologists who were aboard. Kai and his CIA asset Neil Davidson meet several times in an attempt to prevent escalation between their two countries. But incidents between their allies continue to escalate.

The US declares DEFCON 3 in the next section of the novel. South Korea destroys a North Korean submarine near Jeju Island, and cyber-attacks against South Korea and American bases located there ensue, a sign that a bigger attack is likely to follow. Behind the scenes, someone is working to discredit Kai. Concerned parties hold a meeting in Sri Lanka to try to reach an agreement but to no avail, as North Korea attacks the South. The North does not use nuclear missiles, so the US and China agree this is an act of retaliation and not a declaration of war. President No of South Korea, however, sees this as an opportunity to attack the North in an attempt at reunification of the peninsula.

The level shifts to DEFCON 2, the last step before a nuclear war. Kai attempts a behind-the-scenes agreement with the North Korean rebels, agreeing to acknowledge they are in control if they agree not to attack the South. Meanwhile, Japan sends its military to a contested island near China, and some of the soldiers antagonize the Chinese on a video, causing anti-Japanese sentiment to surface in the old school Chinese generals. Chinese planes bomb the island, killing the soldiers. Japan sees this as a declaration of war.

DEFCON 1 is the title of the final section of the novel, and it signifies “nuclear war is imminent or has begun” (727). The US bombs the ship that attacked the island. South Korea refuses to retreat. North Korea launches nuclear missiles at the South. Seeing their opportunity, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and predominantly Muslim areas of China begin rebelling. Kai is removed from power, and his father’s hardliners are behind Kai’s arrest. President Chen of China defiantly hangs up on the US president and nukes Hawaii. President Green, safely underground in Munchkin Country, gives the command to launch nuclear missiles aimed at China.