Without giving too much of the story away for all those hordes I know are on the verge of rushing out to read the book itself, here are some thoughts.
I think that the book falls into three categories -- the huge bulk of it overall is terrific. Some of it is a bit whiny, repetitive, and didactic. And a very small part, though surprisingly longer than expected, is mind-numblingly horrific.
As for the terrific, the novel is rich and vibrant in covering such a vast scope of history and personalities in great depth and insight. I didn't find the writing difficult at all -- I've read all of Charles Dickens, and this book is no more challenging than any of that. And while Dickens isn't today's breezy pop-fiction, I don't find it hard to get through in the slightest, just long. War and Peace, though, does top Dickens in length. The most difficult part was keeping track of all the Russian names, not just for their length and unfamiliarity, but also because many names are similar to one another. And lots of Andrei and Nikolais. But what I did was keep a "cheat sheet," copying the helpful index of names listed at the beginning onto the back of my bookmark for easy reference. But overall, the book is a very interesting look at a range of characters (almost all princes, princesses and counts...) with ever-changing and overlapping lives, as well as a detailed look at war, most particularly the War of 1812 between Napoleon and Russia.
There's a religious aspect to the story, as well, where Tolstoy takes great pains to show that characters (and all people) have their best chance of finding personal peace and happiness through an acceptance in God, who has a predestined plan for everything and gives meaning to all. If that's his belief and the story he wants to tell, so be it. It's his story.
Then there's the whiny part. Tolstoy clearly hates Napoleon. Which is understandable, particularly for any Russian coming not all that long after. (About 50 years.) He repeatedly makes clear that he doesn't think Bonaparte was a "genius," nor even all that much of a general, since so much of war and life is dependent on causes that came before, which are dependent on other causes that came before that, and which on and on are dependent on earlier causes. So, it's almost fate, not Napoleon, who -- if he's such a genius -- why did he screw up in Moscow. Which he didn't really screw up, because the problems were caused before and before. Moreover, to Tolstoy, Napoleon was pretty much a criminal thug. Which he explains and makes clear repeatedly. All that's fine, thought it gets said endlessly, and we pretty much get the point by the 20th time he tells us all this.
As for Tolstoy's didactic analysis of war, my assumption going in was that the "war" part of the novel would be about some of the main characters' direct involvement in the fighting, and how it all affected those left at home. And that's how the first half of the book is, dealing with Napoleon's earlier fighting with Russia around 1807. But much of the second half of the book, when dealing with the War of 1812 is almost as if the book is a military history, analyzing real battles and strategies down to the most minute detail, like battalion placement on which side of a river, and guard maneuvers on a hill. In many ways, this is very interesting -- it's just unexpected and not especially novelistic, not only because much of it doesn't include any of the characters of the story, but rather the real, historical personalities, but also because Tolstoy spends so much of the time complaining about how historians have all analyzed the battles, but they're all wrong, and he's right. (For all I know, he might be right -- except that when someone is always, always right and everyone else is always, always wrong, you begin to suspect that life doesn't work that way.) And tied in to all this is Tolstoy's theory that battle strategy is largely due to causes that came before, which are due to causes that came before -- and before and so on...
(To be fair, I've subsequently read that Tolstoy himself didn't consider the book a novel. That's for him to say and literary critics to debate.)
Somewhat contradictory to all this is how much Tolstoy loves the real-life General Kutuzov. Apparently, Napoleon wasn't a genius because all orders have causes that make them inevitable -- but the orders of General Kutuzov are brilliant and he helped save Russia. Making this stand out all the more is that while Tolstoy makes clear throughout how much he loved Kutozov, he also notes that pretty much everyone else -- at the time and historians looking back -- hated him and found him doddering. But they're all wrong, all of them, all of history, and those present, and Tolstoy is right. And maybe he is, but...life tends not to work that way.
To be clear, it's not bad at all. Much very interesting. Just...well, whiny and didactic.
And then there's the "oh-my-God" terrible.
It's not much of the book at all. Just a tiny part in comparison But it's still long in real-world terms. And it really is head-exploding dismal.
At page 1,411, Tolstoy appears to be wrapping up the story, because most of the characters have largely come to a conclusion, though there are still 44 pages left, and you know that there's a little more to be resolved with a few other characters and a certain wrapping of the overall theme.
At which point, we turn the page and hit Part Two of Book IV.
And for literally the remaining 44 pages, Tolstoy doesn't mention another of the characters or even the story, but goes into a 44-page rant against historians by doing a detailed analysis of history and life and free will and necessity, trying to meticulously prove under every conceivable condition that -- well, honestly, I don't know what. He definitely wants to prove (and I mean scientifically prove) that life is not free will. I thought what he was trying to prove was the predestination of God when he compares free will with Man living by "necessity." But then, after pages and dozens of pages, as he starts to near the end, he seems to suggest that life isn't "necessity" either. And he seems instead to bring up a combination of free will and necessity. That's certainly a reasonable point -- just not one that takes 44 pages to prove and at the end of a novel.
He attempts to "prove" all this in a couple of ways, by endless analogies, and scientific theorems. Some of the analogies are fun -- he uses them throughout the book -- but eventually you just get weary of how far he's stretching analogies to make a point.
One of the more notable examples is when he tries to show how perception can give us a false view of genius. His analogy is a flock of sheep, and how one of those sheep is taken away to be fattened up before it's slaughtered. And when it comes back to the flock all well-fed, the other sheep must think it's a genius for being fattened, and that life is all good. Well, for starters, I don't think most of the sheep think that one sheep is a "genius" for getting dragged away and fattened up, just lucky. And I especially don't think the sheep think life is all good, when the end result of this is that the fat sheep gets freaking slaughtered. You just sort of scratch your end and sigh.
As for the scientific theorizing, though, that's the bulk of this last section. And it's most especially mind-numbing. Here's a paragraph of what I mean --
"But besides this, even if admitting a remainder of free will equal to zero, we were to assume in some given case -- as for instance that of a dying man, an unborn child, or an idiot -- complete absence of freedom, by doing so we should destroy the very concept of man in the case we are examining, for as soon as there is no freedom there is no man. Therefore, the conception of the action of a man subject solely to the law of necessity, without any element of freedom, is just as impossible as the conception of completely free human action."
Don't worry. No need to follow what he's saying. There's 44 pages of this. I just offer it as an example.
The characters just end. The story just ends. The resolution, after 1,411 pages, just sort of peters out. And it's not just that all this following has next to nothing to do with the story (which is no small thing), but also that it's SO pedantic, convoluted, angry at historians, endlessly repetitive, thinly philosophical, self-righteous and goes on for 44 freaking pages.
The best I can figure is that he's trying to show that there is no such thing as genius and that events come from events before them, except that there seems to be some free will. But then, he said that often in the first 1,411 pages, so we figured it out already. But by going into this inexplicable, unending rant, it just undercuts a simple belief and almost makes you dismiss that opinion entirely since it's so frantic and pointlessly done. "Methinks he doth protest too much" doth come to mind.
I want to be clear: I've written more about the end than the bulk of the book, and it's just 44 pages. The first 1,411 pages are terrific, even if flawed. But the end of anything is our most recent impression, and this is so utterly outlandish and inexplicable that it requires some blood letting.
The novel is wonderful. Much is brilliant. Deeply thoughtful and richly insightful. Just stop at page 1,411. And then maybe peek at the rest for the heck of it.