Deftly moves through a complex web of personal relationships, religious zeal and political fervor.

BY FIRE, BY WATER

Debut novelist Kaplan depicts a turbulent period in 15th-century Spain, focusing on the story of Aragon’s royal chancellor.

Luis de Santángel’s grandfather was a converso, one of the many Jews forced to convert to Christianity. The chancellor retains an interest in his Jewish heritage, a dangerous prospect given the “New Inquisition” that has recently come to Spain. While Luis is influential and has the ear of King Fernando, he feels threatened by Chief Inquisitor Pedro de Arbués, charged with ferreting out apostates and all those who may have fallen from the true faith. Luis colludes in Pedro’s assassination, but faces more danger when Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada arrives to track down the conspirators. Torquemada captures Luis’s brother Estefan, and we learn in grisly detail how the Inquisition extracted “confessions of faith” from those who legitimately felt they had nothing to confess. Religious issues become even more complicated when the forces of Fernando and Ysabel push south into Granada to expel the Moors, an act prompted partly by religious fervor, partly by political expediency. When Ysabel finds out about a spurious anti-Christian manuscript entitled Toledoth Yeshu, she is led to an act of intolerance—the expulsion of all Jews from the kingdom—that rivals the cross-examinations and tortures of the Inquisition. Meanwhile, Cristóbal Colón, desperately trying to get funding for his voyage of discovery, needs to persuade those in power that going west is indeed a viable route to the Indies. Luis becomes Colón’s influential advocate at court, even putting up some of his own considerable fortune to fund the expedition. The chancellor’s political life becomes intertwined with his personal life when Luis falls in love with Judith, a beautiful Jew and talented silversmith.

Deftly moves through a complex web of personal relationships, religious zeal and political fervor.

Pub Date: May 18, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59051-352-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2010

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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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A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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