A Moment in the Sun is an epic novel that covers much ground. I agree with my friend David for his notion that “Tolstoy himself would have to be proud of Sayles for this one.” A Moment in the Sun certainly mirrors War and Peace in scope and subject (although I'm sure Tolstoy—especially in his later years—would have grave objections with some of the vulgarity in Sayles' work).
AMitS brings to fiction one of the more interesting time periods of American history. It begins n 1897, shortly before the sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba, and concludes sometime after Czolgosz's execution in 1901. In the 955 pages of the novel, the reader is taken around the world—most notable were the Yukon, North Carolina, Cuba, the Philippines, and New York. Using many factual events and people, A Moment in the Sun touches on some lesser known moments from world history (e.g. the successful and bloody coup in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898).
Sayles does a splendid job in refraining from making his novel a platform for social commentary. The opportunity is definitely there, but Sayles allows the characters and events to speak for themselves. It could be said that many parallels exist between the United States of 1898 and the United States of 2001—questions of people's judgments and their sense of right and wrong—but these are fully up to the reader to deduce and interpret as they see appropriate.
The characters of A Moment in the Sun are equally compelling but do lack some balance. Some characters (especially Hod), introduced in the introductory chapters, dominate the book for several hundred pages and are largely forgotten by the end. Others are shaped as primary characters but do not show up until the last chapters (i.e. Shoe and, to a lesser extent, Mei). Equally off balance were Sayles female characters, which was very unfortunate given the author's ability to work so well with a female narrative. Of the novel's many characters, only three females took any kind of significant role; their place was always secondary to their male counterparts. Many of my favorite scenes involved the character of Jessie and I would have loved for Sayles to develop her further.
Aside from the lack of symmetry, A Moment in the Sun was very well orchestrated. The distinct voices were believable and gripping; the scenes were filled with action and heart; the settings and events were stunning and well-researched.
Reflecting on all that happened in A Moment in the Sun, I am reminded of a passage from a similar novel: “It's not given to people to judge what's right or wrong. People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken, and in nothing more than in what they consider right and wrong.” -War and Peace Indeed, Tolstoy would've been proud.