What, if anything, is Gore Vidal up to in this long, stylish, densely busy but totally undramatic novel of the Persian Empire, circa 520-445 B.C.? Occasionally he seems to be interested in presenting shrewd alternative versions of textbook history (particularly the Greek-Persian wars), the sort of dusted-off, backroom politics he managed quite well in his American historicals (Burr, 1876). More often he settles down into comparative theology—as his narrator, a grandson of prophet Zoroaster, is somehow able to visit all the great Greek philosophers and Eastern mystics of this remarkable era (Buddha, Confucius, etc.), trying on their theories and asking them the Great Questions. But most of the time Vidal merely seems content to string along incidents, anecdotes, artifacts, and rituals of the period—in a sort of picaresque travelogue with little shape and no momentum whatsoever. We begin in Athens, 445 B.C., where old, blind Cyrus Spitama—the ambassador from Persia—is infuriated by Herodotus' version of "the Persian wars" and responds by dictating his memoirs to nephew Democritus. Cyrus remembers his early years: his special status (as grandson of prophet Zoroaster) at the intrigue-ridden court of Great King Darius, where he grows up alongside Darius' son Xerxes—who saves Cyrus' life (a raging-boar attack), leads some youthful pranks in licentious Babylon, but will always feel doomed because of Darius' usurpation (via murder) of the Persian throne. Cyrus also recalls the real cause of the Greek-Persian Wars—the meddling, opportunistic advice of ambitious Greek hangers-on at Darius' court—and his own efforts to encourage Persian expansion to the east rather than the west. And, chiefly, Cyrus recollects his journeys to the east as Persia's trade-treaty ambassador. To India in search of iron and allies ("If Darius was obliged to walk about naked with a broom in order to gain India, he would")—where he hears the credos of Gosala, Mahavira, and Buddha, witnesses a horse sacrifice, takes an Indian wife, survives a flood, and observes treacherous palace revolutions. And then, after a brief sojourn back in Persia (Xerxes' ascension), to Cathay—where he is taken prisoner, sees vast human sacrifices, meets the sage of Taoism (here called Li Tzu), and gets deeply involved in the power-struggle between a Cathayan dictator and Confucius. (Cyrus finds Confucius a "nag" and an atheist. . . but the most impressive man of all.) This brings Cyrus up to about age 40—and then Vidal, apparently running out of energy, wraps up the next 20 years of his life (the decline and murder of Xerxes, more Greek-Persian conflict) in about 50 pages. . . plus an epilogue in which nephew Democritus suggests his atomic theory as an answer to Cyrus' eternal question: who created the world? Unfortunately, this loose theological-quest framework—what happens when a monotheistic, Heaven/ Hell believer is exposed to the gamut of Eastern philosophy or Western science? —is hardly enough to hold Vidal's meandering novel together. And though Cyrus' crisp, sarcastic tone often livens things up, the sheer onslaught of names and places and byzantine mini-plots (none of them developed with any depth or drama) will leave most readers confused and disappointed. Lots of jauntily fictionalized fact, legend, geography, and exotic cultural sociology, then—but only those with a great knowledge of (or appetite for) this theo-historical territory will want to ride along the whole length of Cyrus' journey.

Pub Date: March 26, 1981

ISBN: 0375727051

Page Count: 592

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Nov. 11, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1981

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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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.


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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