A maximally engaging tale of ancient Rome.

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THE FIRST VILLAGE

Political intrigue and erotic charge fuel this novel set in the waning years of the Roman Empire.

“Stories get better and better after four hundred years,” according to this tale about Gen. Magnus Maximus, commander of the Roman forces in Britain in the twilight years of the fourth century. But if a 400-year-old story is great, a 1,600-year-old yarn must be even better. Such is the logic of Evans’ (Menace, 2017, etc.) engrossing work of historical fiction, which puts flesh on the biography of Maximus, one of Rome’s more intriguing figures. Maximus is a military leader—and a fine one at that—but the grumblings of his troops against the local emperor, Gratianus, have given the general dreams of the throne. Could he turn his military power into an empire? The temptation is real. Yet Maximus has other dreams too; these nighttime visions are of a woman of surpassing grace named Elen, who the author is at great pains to remind readers is the “most beautiful woman” that just about anyone has ever seen. Driven by his ambitions—both political and romantic—Maximus puts two plans in motion, one to become emperor and the other to win the literal woman of his dreams. All good historical fiction must start with superb history, and Evans has picked an excellent source. The general is complicated in all the right ways: Ambitious and talented, proud and provocative, Maximus is a protagonist pulled directly from central casting. And while the author is supported by the historical record, he is not confined by it, and he tweaks and bends the story adeptly to fit his own narrative needs. Perhaps the only small defect lies in the prose itself: Evans is an academic by training, and sometimes his book reads less like a novel on ancient Rome than a scholarly essay about it. But his writing is never too purple, and readers will be happy to trudge through the occasional linguistic thicket to find out what happens next.

A maximally engaging tale of ancient Rome.

Pub Date: March 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-78465-533-4

Page Count: 398

Publisher: Vanguard Press

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2019

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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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