Not a major historical novel, but a highly entertaining one.

THE FOOL’S TALE

A NOVEL OF MEDIEVAL WALES

A strange triangle of relationships exhaustively analyzed in a debut historical set in late-12th-century Wales.

In the time when that small country is divided into four “kingdoms,” young monarch Maelgwyn ap Cadwallon (a.k.a. “Noble”) contends with external threats (from English barons whose lands abut his own northwest border) and quarrels with rival Welsh princes. A prologue recounts the preadolescent prince’s escape during the Norman attack that brought his father Cadwallon’s death, the escape accomplished through the courage and guile of Noble’s boyhood friend, lowborn foundling Gwirion. Years later, the adult Noble weds aristocrat Isabel Mortimer (daughter of his father’s mortal enemies), hoping to cement truces and strengthen his kingdom’s preeminence. But Isabel “fails” to bear him an heir and haughtily endures her unwelcome marriage (to a sovereign who prefers to bed comely kitchen wenches) and the impudent wit of Gwirion. The latter, now ensconced as Noble’s court jester (or “fool”), is an inveterate prankster whose brazen disrespect for all authorities sometimes amuses the indulgent king, and sometimes puts Gwirion’s very life in real peril. Things change when, after Noble goes off to battle, his castle is captured by Welsh invaders and his queen and fool are imprisoned together—and, to their mutual amusement and horror, start to fall in love. The long aftermath of these developments forces Noble (having recaptured his castle and his power—and eventually having realized how grievously he’s been betrayed) to consider ridding himself of the one betrayer he considers expendable (for “Gwirion was nearly the only constant in the king’s life since infancy. He could not be so rudely dispatched”). Galland’s impressively researched potboiler suffers from random anachronisms and tends toward the underplotted. But the characters of Isabel, Noble, and especially Gwirion are deftly drawn, and racy depictions of their fateful interactions become quite compulsively readable.

Not a major historical novel, but a highly entertaining one.

Pub Date: Jan. 4, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-072150-2

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2004

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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