Well-rounded it’s not, but, again, Ford offers solidly researched and lustily violent military historical fiction.

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THE SWORD OF ATTILA

A NOVEL OF THE LAST YEARS OF ROME

Roman general and Asiatic warlord trade places in childhood and find comradeship—before the tides of history sweep them into bloody conflict.

Ford (The Last King, 2003, etc.) writes manly historicals, the kind that, being set so far in a safely distant past, allow his readers the vicarious thrills of taking part in gargantuan military campaigns and being present at momentous events without having to be entangled in all those modern political complications. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This time out, Ford continues to mine the rich vein of antiquity and here, in fifth century a.d., comes up with Attila, a smart sort of Hun who gets sent as hostage (to enforce the keeping of a treaty) to the Roman court in Ravenna, where he meets Flavius Aetius, who, in turn, is soon hostaged to the rough wooden dwellings of the Huns. Raised in their respectively alien environments, the two men respond in markedly different styles. Ford delves deeply into Hunnish ways, providing extensive detail about how this fierce, nomadic Central European people lived—though he admits in a postscript that, given the dearth of almost any decent research on the Huns, much of this had to be made up—while practically ignoring Attila’s young adulthood among the decadent Romans. After being returned to their native environments, these two natural leaders react somewhat differently, with Attila immediately returning to his Hunnish roots and Aetius keeping a hard-bitten Hun’s perspective about him as he ascends to the rank of Roman general. Initially, it seems these two men will be able to forge some sort of lasting peace between their feuding empires, but outside pressures and the arrogance of power conspire against such a friendly resolution. Thus, the stage is set for the apocalyptic Battle of Chalons, in Gaul, where over a million men battle to determine who will rule Europe. It’s a massively long, brutal spectacle, supremely well-executed by Ford.

Well-rounded it’s not, but, again, Ford offers solidly researched and lustily violent military historical fiction.

Pub Date: March 18, 2005

ISBN: 0-312-33360-9

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2005

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

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HOMEGOING

A novel of sharply drawn character studies immersed in more than 250 hard, transformative years in the African-American diaspora.

Gyasi’s debut novel opens in the mid-1700s in what is now Ghana, as tribal rivalries are exploited by British and Dutch colonists and slave traders. The daughter of one tribal leader marries a British man for financial expediency, then learns that the “castle” he governs is a holding dungeon for slaves. (When she asks what’s held there, she’s told “cargo.”) The narrative soon alternates chapters between the Ghanans and their American descendants up through the present day. On either side of the Atlantic, the tale is often one of racism, degradation, and loss: a slave on an Alabama plantation is whipped “until the blood on the ground is high enough to bathe a baby”; a freedman in Baltimore fears being sent back South with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act; a Ghanan woman is driven mad from the abuse of a missionary and her husband’s injury in a tribal war; a woman in Harlem is increasingly distanced from (and then humiliated by) her husband, who passes as white. Gyasi is a deeply empathetic writer, and each of the novel’s 14 chapters is a savvy character portrait that reveals the impact of racism from multiple perspectives. It lacks the sweep that its premise implies, though: while the characters share a bloodline, and a gold-flecked stone appears throughout the book as a symbolic connector, the novel is more a well-made linked story collection than a complex epic. Yet Gyasi plainly has the talent to pull that off: “I will be my own nation,” one woman tells a British suitor early on, and the author understands both the necessity of that defiance and how hard it is to follow through on it.

A promising debut that’s awake to emotional, political, and cultural tensions across time and continents.

Pub Date: June 7, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-94713-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: March 2, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2016

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