While we learn much about falconry and medieval warfare, we learn rather too much about inflicting pain.

VLAD

THE LAST CONFESSION

A novel that sets out to humanize and demythologize Vlad the Impaler...though he’s still very naughty.

The chief rivalry here is between Turks and Christians in the 15th century. Those sides are represented by Sultan Murad Han—and later by Mehmet, his son—and by Vlad Dracula. We first meet Vlad as a janissary, a 17-year-old Christian slave in the Turkish court, and find he’s a fine pupil, speaker of numerous languages and even reluctant scholar of the Koran. What begins as competition and gamesmanship between Vlad and Mehmet escalates into hatred, especially given the fact that Mehmet’s father, the sultan, has had Vlad’s father beheaded and Vlad’s older brother Mircea tortured and buried alive. Mehmet is pushed over the edge when Vlad kidnaps the young sultan’s new concubine, Ilona, and spirits her away to Wallachia, the small kingdom where Vlad has his castle. For six months, Vlad endures the tortures (literally) of the prison at Tokat, mercilessly flayed (and worse) by a dwarf and his able, sadistic assistant. At Tokat, Vlad not only learns but internalizes the prison motto: “You torture others so they cannot torture you.” And indeed, Humphreys’ narrative is filled with stomach-wrenching scenes of violence. (We find out, for example, that Mehmet has had the stomachs of seven servants slit open because one of them had stolen a cucumber, and he wanted to find the thief.) Vlad eventually embarks on a quest to free Constantinople from Muslim rule, an impossibility given the odds against him, but he does have the satisfaction of exacting revenge on some of his previous enemies.

While we learn much about falconry and medieval warfare, we learn rather too much about inflicting pain.

Pub Date: May 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-4022-5351-5

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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