This is historical adventure on a grand scale, right up there with the works of Conn Iggulden and Minette Walters.

SWORD OF KINGS

Plenty of gore from days of yore fills the 12th entry in Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series (War of the Wolf, 2018, etc.).

The pagan warlord Uhtred of Bebbanburg narrates his 10th-century adventures, during which he hacks people apart so that kingdoms might be stitched together. He is known to some as the Godless or the Wicked, a reputation he enjoys. Edward, King of Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia is gravely ill, and Uhtred pledges an oath to likely heir Æthelstan to kill two rivals, Æthelhelm and “his rotten nephew,” Ælfweard, when the king dies. Uhtred’s wife, Eadith, wants him to break that oath, but he cannot live with the dishonor of being an oathbreaker. The tale seems to begin in the middle, as though the reader had just turned the last page in the 11th book—and yet it stands alone quite well. Uhtred travels the coast and the river Temes in the good ship Spearhafoc, powered by 40 rowers struggling against tides and currents. He and his men fight furious battles, and he lustily impales foes with his favorite sword, Serpent-Breath. “I don’t kill the helpless,” though, which is one of his few limits. So, early in the story, when a man calling himself “God’s chosen one” declares “We were sent to kill you,” readers may chuckle and say yeah, right. But Uhtred faces true challenges such as Waormund, “lord Æthelhelm’s beast.” Immense bloodletting aside, Cornwell paints vivid images of the filth in the Temes and in cities like Lundene. This is mainly manly fare, of course. Few women are active characters. The queen needs rescuing, and “when queens call for help, warriors go to war.” The action is believable if often gruesome and loathsome, and it never lets up for long.

This is historical adventure on a grand scale, right up there with the works of Conn Iggulden and Minette Walters.

Pub Date: Nov. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-06-256321-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 2, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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