Exciting fare, a yarn well-spun.

THE FALCON OF SPARTA

Deadly enemies duke it out for control of the Persian throne in Iggulden’s latest historical adventure (The Abbot’s Tale, 2018, etc.).

It’s 401 B.C.E, and King Darius tells his eldest son, Artaxerxes, that one day he must murder his younger brother, Cyrus, when the old man dies. It’s what Darius himself did—it’s what Persian kings did to gain and safeguard their thrones. But the adult Cyrus “knew he had been born loyal” and accepts that he will never be king. So matters get most unbrotherly when Darius dies and the new “god-emperor” Artaxerxes orders his brother executed despite the latter’s protestations of loyalty. Their mother puts a stop to the immediate fratricide, but soon the two enemies gather armies to do battle. The king’s massive array of troops vastly outnumbers that of the underdog Cyrus, who has Spartans, Persians, Greeks, camp followers, scant gold for his mercenaries, and desperately little food. Copious amounts of blood flow and many heads roll in scenes of vicious violence and betrayal. Readers might not want to get too attached to any favorite character, because no one’s fate is guaranteed. There are no dull moments in the tale, because in between battles, Cyrus’ army struggles to live off the land and survive the heat, “a living thing, a tongue of flame that flickered and pressed among the marching men.” Meanwhile, the war cost Artaxerxes “unimaginable sums in gold.” But he is determined: One man will win, and the other “will feed the kites and crows. It is just the way of things.” Valiant Spartans rip into Persian ranks, but the Persians simply replace their dead with an apparently endless supply of fresh troops. This is a well-researched tale of heroism and hardship, honor and betrayal in which anyone’s life can disappear with a filth-tipped arrow or the slash of a kopis.

Exciting fare, a yarn well-spun.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64313-056-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Nov. 12, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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