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THE FALCON OF SPARTA

Exciting fare, a yarn well-spun.

Deadly enemies duke it out for control of the Persian throne in Iggulden’s latest historical adventure (The Abbot’s Tale, 2018, etc.).

It’s 401 B.C.E, and King Darius tells his eldest son, Artaxerxes, that one day he must murder his younger brother, Cyrus, when the old man dies. It’s what Darius himself did—it’s what Persian kings did to gain and safeguard their thrones. But the adult Cyrus “knew he had been born loyal” and accepts that he will never be king. So matters get most unbrotherly when Darius dies and the new “god-emperor” Artaxerxes orders his brother executed despite the latter’s protestations of loyalty. Their mother puts a stop to the immediate fratricide, but soon the two enemies gather armies to do battle. The king’s massive array of troops vastly outnumbers that of the underdog Cyrus, who has Spartans, Persians, Greeks, camp followers, scant gold for his mercenaries, and desperately little food. Copious amounts of blood flow and many heads roll in scenes of vicious violence and betrayal. Readers might not want to get too attached to any favorite character, because no one’s fate is guaranteed. There are no dull moments in the tale, because in between battles, Cyrus’ army struggles to live off the land and survive the heat, “a living thing, a tongue of flame that flickered and pressed among the marching men.” Meanwhile, the war cost Artaxerxes “unimaginable sums in gold.” But he is determined: One man will win, and the other “will feed the kites and crows. It is just the way of things.” Valiant Spartans rip into Persian ranks, but the Persians simply replace their dead with an apparently endless supply of fresh troops. This is a well-researched tale of heroism and hardship, honor and betrayal in which anyone’s life can disappear with a filth-tipped arrow or the slash of a kopis.

Exciting fare, a yarn well-spun.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-64313-056-9

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Pegasus

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2018

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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