With enough story to fill two Cornwells and a Lambdin, Penman’s latest is a massively entertaining work of historical...

A KING'S RANSOM

In Penman’s (Lionheart, 2011) sequel, Richard the Lionheart, deserted by King Philippe Capet of France, has failed to take Jerusalem from Saladin and now treks homeward.

It’s 1192, the Third Crusade has stalled, and as King Richard lands in Sicily, a simple tale of heading home soon turns complex. Richard is warned that Philippe’s allies are waiting in Marseilles to capture his small party, so he decides to approach Europe via the stormy Adriatic Sea. Shortly after landing, he's captured—in defiance of papal decree—by the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich, who wants ransom. Richard is dispatched to the prison castle of Trifels. Weeks later he’s rescued by his ever loyal counselor, Longchamp, reviled by foes as a "misshapen dwarf." Richard returns to Normandy and fights to reclaim land taken by Philippe. Detailed down to the last flagon of wine, Penman’s work will please serious fans of historical fiction. Conferences and confrontations between kings and emperors, dukes and archbishops stretch across Europe from Sicily to Nottingham (Prince John appears but not Robin Hood), every page illustrating prodigious research. Aristocrats, abbots and archbishops come to life in an era when bishops were churchmen, soldiers and politicians. Women conversely were chattel, bargained away in marriage to strengthen loyalties between vassals and liege lords. The most intriguing woman is Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother and primary adviser, with a "spine, like the finest swords, forged in fire." Characters rise from the pages—Richard, brave warrior, skilled diplomat; Heinrich, "If he were cut, he’d bleed ice"; the mercenary Mercadier; and multitudes more. Seven years of sieges and battles, confrontations in castles and on horseback are lovingly detailed, marred only by the occasional intrusion of an overly modern perspective. 

With enough story to fill two Cornwells and a Lambdin, Penman’s latest is a massively entertaining work of historical fiction for dedicated fans.

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-399-15922-0

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Marian Wood/Putnam

Review Posted Online: Feb. 13, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

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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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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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