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A thrilling blend of historical rigor and dramatic storytelling.

Awards & Accolades

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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



The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist (1900–45) collected his work from WWII in two bestselling volumes, this second published in 1944, a year before Pyle was killed by a sniper’s bullet on Okinawa. In his fine introduction to this new edition, G. Kurt Piehler (History/Univ. of Tennessee at Knoxville) celebrates Pyle’s “dense, descriptive style” and his unusual feel for the quotidian GI experience—a personal and human side to war left out of reporting on generals and their strategies. Though Piehler’s reminder about wartime censorship seems beside the point, his biographical context—Pyle was escaping a troubled marriage—is valuable. Kirkus, at the time, noted the hoopla over Pyle (Pulitzer, hugely popular syndicated column, BOMC hype) and decided it was all worth it: “the book doesn’t let the reader down.” Pyle, of course, captures “the human qualities” of men in combat, but he also provides “an extraordinary sense of the scope of the European war fronts, the variety of services involved, the men and their officers.” Despite Piehler’s current argument that Pyle ignored much of the war (particularly the seamier stuff), Kirkus in 1944 marveled at how much he was able to cover. Back then, we thought, “here’s a book that needs no selling.” Nowadays, a firm push might be needed to renew interest in this classic of modern journalism.

Pub Date: April 26, 2001

ISBN: 0-8032-8768-2

Page Count: 513

Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2001



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. 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2021

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