According to Tolstoy, War and Peace isn't actually a novel. I'm not sure exactly what his criteria was, and I can't say that I entirely agree with him. In my estimation, War and Peace is definitely a novel, albiet an epic, sprawling one with a cast that numbers in the hundreds. Supposedly, there are over 200 significant characters in the novel, including Czar Alexander and Napoleon himself. The estimate isn't difficult to believe, considering that, in one of the appendices, all characters with lengthy story arcs are listed, and that list includes over 70. When you lump in the supporting characters, War and Peace probably has more characters in it than this blog has readers.
War and Peace may be the best known book that no one knows anything about. Except for Woody Allen's summation (“I sped read War and peace in 15 minutes. It involves Russia”), I knew nothing about it either. After actually reading it though, it's easy to see why no one knows much about it. Whereas most books can be succintly summarized in a few words, War and Peace defies such capsulization. Boiling a book with no main character, no main plotline, and numerous philosophical digressions down to a paragraph isn't easy, but here goes. War and Peace is about Napoleon's failed attempt to conquer Russia, and how the war affects individuals in the nation, from nobles, to soldiers, to servants. As a description, the above is accurate, but it in no way captures the scope of the novel.
The stories of the characters in the book, from the fickle Natasha to the haughty Prince Andrey to the compassionate but searching Pierre to the meglomaniacal Napoleon, all intertwine in unexpected and sometimes inconsequential ways. Characters will appear in scenes together who do not know each other. Sometimes the actions of one character will affect another one without his knowing. Much like the real world, the lives of the characters are influenced by people they will never even know. Think Short Cuts with a larger cast, and you'll have an idea.
The writing itself surprised me. In a book that's over 1400 pages long, you'd expect that the writing would be padded with page-long descriptions of trees or long-winded statements about the minutae of a meal, but War and Peace never falls into this trap. The writing (and the translation) is sometimes beautifully rendered, but it rarely slips into the sort of self-indulgent tangents that pad out works by authors of modern bricks, like Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Virtually everything serves a purpose, and it makes War and Peace move along at a much faster clip than you'd expect.
All said, it's certainly one of the best novels I've ever read. If I had to make a complaint, it would be that the last 50 pages are Tolstoy's thoughts on the war, and, while they're interesting, they would have been better served as an appendix. After reading 1350 pages about these people, having the last 50 pages talking about military theory is a bit of an anticlimax. Still, it does litle to diminish the power of the book, and it was well worth the time it took to read it.