While some portions lack literary zeal, this book still delivers a highly entertaining Viking adventure.

The Varangian

From the Odd Tangle-Hair's Saga series , Vol. 3

This third installment of a historical fiction series focuses on a bold Viking’s daunting mission in the 11th century C.E.

Having come a long way from his native Iceland in the first two volumes in this series (in escapades that included becoming enslaved by a murderous sorceress and serving as the personal poet of a Norwegian prince), Viking Odd Tangle-Hair in Book 3 lands in a most unexpected place: Constantinople. Known as Miklagard (“Big Town”) to the Norse, Constantinople teems with a number of competing interests. Posing as a Grand Prince of Rus, Odd plans to find and murder his former master, Harald Sigurdsson. Though it may seem like a simple enough task, Harald is a high-ranking member of the emperor’s Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine Army composed largely of Norsemen. While locating Harald may be easy, disposing of him is an entirely different matter. Add in the politics and eccentricities of life in the Big Town and Odd’s scheme seems nearly impossible. Take Empress Zoe, for example, a most seductive and peculiar woman who seems to love nothing more than making perfume. Certainly volumes could be devoted to her motivations; however, she is just one of the many characters competing in this world of powerful eunuchs, mad rulers, and gut-wrenching punishments (why bother with execution when one can cut off the ears and nose of a rival prior to banishing him?). Thoroughly effective at explaining the intriguing and highly complex circumstances of the time period, MacBain’s (The Ice Queen, 2015, etc.) book shines in a way that only historical fiction can. Who needs King Jon Snow in Game of Thrones when one can get a glimpse of the historically real and undeniably sinister John the Guardian of Orphans? Even the most terrifying dragon pales in comparison to the sheer horror of a society so comfortable with castration. As the story ventures outside of Constantinople, the reader is treated to a plot that can only be described as epic. Though Odd’s love of a crafty young woman can create some saccharine moments (“I will always, always come back,” he vows), what would a well-rounded saga be without statements of devotion? Quick and violent throughout, Odd’s journey moves steadily until the very last page.

While some portions lack literary zeal, this book still delivers a highly entertaining Viking adventure.

Pub Date: Nov. 29, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-943075-24-9

Page Count: 358

Publisher: Blank Slate Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 14, 2016

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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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