Less a novel than a 400-plus-page prologue to an anticipated sequel.

THE WINTER PALACE

Young Catherine the Great, as observed by a palace mole.

Varvara, daughter of a Polish bookbinder, is fortunate, after being orphaned at an early age, to be hired to serve Empress Elizabeth of Russia as a seamstress. Bestuzhev, Chancellor of Russia, soon sees the makings of an excellent spy in the comely young woman. He undertakes her training, and soon she’s ingratiating herself with the Empress and reporting on every tantrum and foible. Catherine, daughter of impoverished Prussian nobles, is brought to Russia to marry Elizabeth’s nephew Peter, the Crown Prince. Varvara and Catherine soon bond, as Catherine’s meddling mother angers the Empress and almost scuttles the betrothal. Once married to Peter, Catherine’s position at court remains precarious—her husband seems more interested in playing soldier than fathering the new heir Elizabeth longs for. Varvara’s loyalty to Catherine antagonizes Bestuzhev, who despises Germans in general and Catherine in particular. Bestuzhev effectively banishes Varvara, arranging her marriage to Egor, an officer of the Palace Guard. Meanwhile Catherine and Peter are consigned to a remote castle in hopes that, deprived of distractions, they will mate. Catherine does produce a son, Paul, in all likelihood fathered by her lover, Saltykov. Elizabeth immediately appropriates Paul, who as he grows becomes a stranger to his mother. Catherine takes another lover, and Varvara is recalled to court by Bestuzhev as he envisions Catherine succeeding Elizabeth instead of Peter (just as Elizabeth herself usurped the throne from other heirs). War with Prussia takes Egor to the front, and as construction on the Empress’ Winter Palace proceeds at a glacial pace, the court waits to see how, and to whom, the balance of power will shift. All this watchful waiting saps the novel of drama. Historically brilliant and erudite, Catherine comes off as a passive and needy whiner, dependent on others to mediate for her. Varvara is such a covert operator that her personality never emerges.

Less a novel than a 400-plus-page prologue to an anticipated sequel.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-553-80812-4

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2011

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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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