I, Claudius it’s not. Still, Quinn handles Imperial Rome with panache.

EMPRESS OF THE SEVEN HILLS

The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.

Ex-gladiator Vix, short for Vercingetorix (after Julius Caesar’s Gallic nemesis), has just returned to Rome. His parents, in the Roman equivalent of a witness-protection program for their role in the assassination of tyrannical Emperor Domitian, have retired to Britannia, where they have a villa and a garden. Vix seeks out the protection of his parents’ protector and co-conspirator, Senator Norbanus. Hired as a guard, Vix is enticed into the bed of Norbanus’ daughter Sabina, who at 18 has still not chosen a husband. After Sabina marries Hadrian, ward of the current Emperor Trajan, Vix joins the Tenth Legion and is off to Germania. When Hadrian and Trajan arrive to put down a barbarian rebellion, Sabina tags along, and is soon marching with the legions herself. Since Hadrian is preoccupied with male lovers, spirited Sabina is free to share the campfire and cot of Vix, forging convivial friendships with his comrades, including her former suitor Titus, a reluctant military tribune. Vix hopes to advance through the ranks despite his plebian status, but his only chance of making Centurion is to distinguish himself in battle: this he does by finding the weak spot of a fortress under siege, and killing the barbarian king. Promoted to aquilifer (bearer of the legion’s eagle standard), Vix’s joy is short-lived: His treasonous affair with Sabina is very nearly exposed. Hadrian’s meddling mentoress, the Empress Plotina, convinces Hadrian to curtail his wife's freedoms. Years later, Vix, on the verge of attaining his dream, Centurion-hood, returns to Rome, where Sabina remains under tight surveillance by Hadrian and the Empress. Titus advises Vix to steer clear, particularly if he wants to join Trajan’s next campaign of conquest in Parthia. However, soon Sabina, Vix and Titus dare to flout Hadrian, who, if Plotina’s schemes bear fruit, will occupy the imperial throne (and Quinn’s next book).

I, Claudius it’s not. Still, Quinn handles Imperial Rome with panache.

Pub Date: April 3, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-425-24202-5

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Berkley

Review Posted Online: Feb. 20, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2012

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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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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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