A thrilling blend of historical rigor and dramatic storytelling.


A reconsideration of the causes of the First Crusade in light of the struggle between Byzantium and invading Turks.

According to Holmes, the “brutality” and “scale” of the First Crusade was “unprecedented,” and it “reshaped the Middle Ages and served as the crucible for the modern world.” However, despite its importance in world history, its genesis isn’t always properly understood, he says. Rather than focusing on the event as the crescendo of a mounting theological conflict—a clash of religious civilizations—he reframes it as an effort to retrieve lands that Byzantium had lost to invading Seljuk Turks. First, Holmes paints a vivid picture of a decaying empire; Byzantium, he says, was actually the eastern vestige of the Roman Empire, so weakened by inconstant rule that it surrendered the gains that it had accrued during the previous century. Meanwhile, it suffered a “seemingly endless onslaught of barbarians battering at its gates,” the most dangerous of which were the Seljuk Turks, whom Holmes calls a “new superpower” of largely “nomadic tribesmen” who were recently converted Muslims. Holmes artfully depicts the new Byzantine emperor, Romanus Diogenes; he was previously arrested for taking part in a coup against the royal family, which he felt wasn’t doing enough to prepare for war. Despite Romanus’ exemplary leadership, the advances of the Seljuk Turks, under the direction of Alp Arslan, proved unstoppable. This set the stage for a wide-ranging coalition to regain the lands that Byzantium had lost as well as holy land that had been surrendered long ago, such as Jerusalem. The coalition also sought to save Byzantium from “rape, pillage, and slaughter.” In addition, the situation presented an enticing opportunity for Pope Urban II to extend his power over Constantinople.

Holmes’ history is as concise as it is astute, and his scholarship is admirably scrupulous throughout. Over the course of the book, he writes in a consistently accessible prose style that avoids the unwieldy apparatuses of academic scholarship; the work is clearly intended for a wider audience, and as a result, readers are spared extended reviews of specialized secondary literature. Holmes presents his thesis persuasively and corrects aspects of the historical record that were constructed on shaky evidentiary ground. For example, contrary to the fashionable view that Romanus was an “arrogant fool,” the author convincingly portrays him as an impressively brave and noble figure, even after he was captured: “Surrounded, Romanus fought like a lion. There isn’t a single source, pro-Romanus or anti-Romanus, which doesn't praise him as a hero.” Likewise, Arslan is distinguished by his “chivalrous behavior” and by the magnanimous way in which he offered Romanus his “hand in friendship” upon victory. Indeed, for all of Holmes’ keen historical research, the chief strength of his study is the almost novelistic way in which the drama unfolds. It’s a refreshing alternative to interpretations of the Crusades that emphasize a confrontation of spiritual worldviews rather than more terrestrial concerns, such as self-preservation, extension of empire, and aggrandizement of power.

A thrilling blend of historical rigor and dramatic storytelling.

Pub Date: May 28, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-78901-758-8

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Troubador Publishing

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2020

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Required reading for anyone interested in global affairs.


The author of authoritative books on Mao and Pol Pot returns with another impressive yet disturbing account of a dangerous world leader.

Events in Ukraine will spur sales of this thick biography, but any praise is well deserved, as Short offers an insightful and often discouraging text on the Russian president. Born in 1952 in Leningrad, he grew up in a tiny, shabby apartment shared with two other families. Entering the KGB in 1975, he left in 1991 to join Leningrad’s city government in the exhilarating aftermath of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Diligent and efficient, Putin rose to prominence and moved to Moscow in 1996, becoming President Boris Yeltsin’s trusted assistant and then successor in 2000. Russia’s constitution (approved under Yeltsin) gives its president far more powers than America’s, but Short shows how Putin’s KGB background lowered his inhibitions on imprisoning or murdering political opponents; as time passed, his word became law. The author has no quarrel with the accusation that Putin destroyed the democratic liberties that followed glasnost, but he also points out that, for most Russians, the 1990s were a time of crushing poverty, crime, and disorder. Early on under Putin, living standards increased, and the streets became safer. Few Russians admire the Soviet Union, other than its status as an empire and great power. Many Russians, including Putin, are angry about how the U.S. boasted of victory during the Cold War, gave advice but little else during the lean years, and broke its promise not to expand NATO to former Soviet nations, thereby stoking Russia’s long-standing paranoia about being surrounded by enemies. Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and backing of secessionists in eastern Ukraine remain popular, and many Russians support the invasion of Ukraine despite its difficulties. Having read obsessively and interviewed almost everyone, Putin included, Short delivers a consistently compelling account of Putin’s life so far. Contradictions abound, and the author is not shy about pointing out frank lies from sources that include Putin as well as his enemies.

Required reading for anyone interested in global affairs.

Pub Date: July 26, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-62779-366-7

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 18, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2022

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A rousing, suspenseful adventure tale.



A harrowing expedition to Antarctica, recounted by Departures senior features editor Sancton, who has reported from every continent on the planet.

On Aug. 16, 1897, the steam whaler Belgica set off from Belgium with young  Adrien de Gerlache as commandant. Thus begins Sancton’s riveting history of exploration, ingenuity, and survival. The commandant’s inexperienced, often unruly crew, half non-Belgian, included scientists, a rookie engineer, and first mate Roald Amundsen, who would later become a celebrated polar explorer. After loading a half ton of explosive tonite, the ship set sail with 23 crew members and two cats. In Rio de Janeiro, they were joined by Dr. Frederick Cook, a young, shameless huckster who had accompanied Robert Peary as a surgeon and ethnologist on an expedition to northern Greenland. In Punta Arenas, four seamen were removed for insubordination, and rats snuck onboard. In Tierra del Fuego, the ship ran aground for a while. Sancton evokes a calm anxiety as he chronicles the ship’s journey south. On Jan. 19, 1898, near the South Shetland Islands, the crew spotted the first icebergs. Rough waves swept someone overboard. Days later, they saw Antarctica in the distance. Glory was “finally within reach.” The author describes the discovery and naming of new lands and the work of the scientists gathering specimens. The ship continued through a perilous, ice-littered sea, as the commandant was anxious to reach a record-setting latitude. On March 6, the Belgica became icebound. The crew did everything they could to prepare for a dark, below-freezing winter, but they were wracked with despair, suffering headaches, insomnia, dizziness, and later, madness—all vividly capture by Sancton. The sun returned on July 22, and by March 1899, they were able to escape the ice. With a cast of intriguing characters and drama galore, this history reads like fiction and will thrill fans of Endurance and In the Kingdom of Ice.

A rousing, suspenseful adventure tale.

Pub Date: May 4, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-984824-33-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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