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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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous White policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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