Your basic Horatio Alger dressed up in eunuch drag.

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MEMOIRS OF A BYZANTINE EUNUCH

Another fictional memoir from the author of Theodore (2001), this one about the adventures of a eunuch in ninth-century Constantinople.

Being kidnapped is rarely a way of getting ahead in the world, but it seems to have worked for narrator Zeno. The son of a well-to-do Roman colonist in Asia Minor, Zeno is captured by a marauding band of the Rus (Vikings) while still a boy. Promptly castrated and sold as a slave to an innkeeper in Constantinople, he grows up in a tavern on the outskirts of the capital. A Christian scholar named Constantine, interested in Zeno’s knowledge of the Rus dialect, purchases the boy and introduces him to the higher circles of the Church and Imperial Court; he eventually becomes one of the court eunuchs who handle the administration of imperial policy. This is not purely a desk job. One of Zeno’s first assignments is to secretly escort the young Emperor Michael III to various taverns and brothels, where he can amuse himself unhindered by the imperial prefects. Zeno’s success in this undertaking wins him favor from both the emperor and (more importantly) his uncle Bardas, an army general who has allied himself with Michael against the boy’s mother, Empress Theodora. Not all the intrigues are political. The recent success of Muslim invaders at the empire’s frontiers has led some churchmen to speculate that God is punishing Christians for the idolatry of icons. The possibility of civil war looms as Basil the Usurper raises an army and lays claim to the throne. Who said anything about turmoil? This is just daily life in Byzantium. Author Harris knows his territory well and succeeds in making the fairly complex politics of the Eastern Empire intelligible and interesting to neophytes, but the story in the foreground is pretty shopworn.

Your basic Horatio Alger dressed up in eunuch drag.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2003

ISBN: 1-903517-03-6

Page Count: 358

Publisher: Dedalus

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2003

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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