The Drowning King by Emily HollemanThis sequel to Cleopatra's Shadows opens with Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XII Auletes ("the Piper") on his deathbed as his surviving children, waiting in the wings, conspire against him and each other. Favorite daughter Cleopatra surpasses her siblings in intelligence and ambition, but her younger brother has the support of powerful advisers. Meanwhile, the Roman Empire seeks to consolidate its power by bringing Egypt under its rule. Dysfunctional family dynamics and courtly intrigue lead to the downfall of a dynasty in this 2nd book of the Fall of Egypt trilogy. Readers interested in the legendary Queen of the Nile may enjoy Stacy Schiff's biography Cleopatra, which gives ample historical context.
The Women in the Castle: A Novel by Jessica ShattuckOnce a fashionable gathering place for Germany's smart set, the Bavarian castle of Burg Lingenfels is now, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a crumbling ruin. This character-driven novel follows Marianne von Lingenfels, who offers shelter to Benita Fledermann and Ania Grabarek, the widows of men who fought for the resistance alongside her late husband. Their harrowing experiences forge strong bonds of friendship, but changing circumstances introduce tensions that will tear them apart. With its flawed characters and unflinching examination of the moral dilemmas faced by ordinary people living under authoritarian regimes, this novel may appeal to readers who enjoyed Maria Hummel's Motherland.
Before the War by Fay WeldonAlthough ungainly, socially awkward Vivien "Vivvie" Ripple seems destined to remain a spinster (despite her family's wealth) in 1922 London, an unplanned pregnancy requires that she find a husband, any husband. She proposes a marriage of convenience to Sherwyn Sexton, an aspiring novelist and editor at her father's publishing house -- prompting her scheming socialite mother, Adela, to intervene. Indeed, the vain and ruthless Adela will upstage her daughter in this sardonic, slyly metafictional novel. Fans of family sagas (and scandals) that take place in England between the wars may also enjoy Penny Vincenzi's Spoils of Time trilogy, which begins with No Angel.
City of Thieves: A Novel by David BenioffDuring the Siege of Leningrad, 17-year-old Lev Beniov lands in jail after looting a German paratrooper's corpse for much-needed supplies. While awaiting execution, Lev meets army deserter Kolya, who has also been sentenced to death. However, the condemned men receive a last-minute reprieve when NKVD Colonel Grechko tasks them with gathering ingredients for his daughter's wedding cake. Easier said than done: it's winter in a city that's been in starvation mode since summer, which means that Lev and Kolya must venture into enemy-occupied territory outside the city. Despite its grim subject matter, City of Thieves is a lively adventure story leavened with dark humor.
The Siege Winter: A Novel by Ariana Franklin and Samantha NormanSet during the 12th-century war of succession between Empress Matilda and King Stephen, this novel focuses on ordinary individuals caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Mercenary and arbalist Gwilherm de Vannes rescues peasant girl Em from a brutal assault; Em disguises herself as a boy and becomes apprentice archer Penda as the pair hunts down her attackers. Their paths soon cross that of 16-year-old Maud of Kenniford, reluctant wife to an ailing lord, who offers her castle as safe haven to Empress Matilda and soon finds herself and her household in the midst of a siege. Begun by the late Ariana Franklin and completed by her daughter, Samantha Norman, this suspenseful, intricately plotted novel stands on its own but is loosely connected to Franklin's Adelia Aguilar series (beginning with Mistress of the Art of Death).
The Dovekeepers: A Novel by Alice HoffmanThis heartbreaking novel focuses on four women whose lives intersect in 70 CE during the siege of Masada, the mountain fortress to which 900 Jewish refugees fled after the Romans sacked Jerusalem. There's assassin's daughter Yael, pregnant by her married lover; widowed grandmother Revka, now the guardian of her grandsons following the deaths of her husband and daughter; and Alexandrian priestess and mystic Shirah and her equally unconventional daughter Aziza, a warrior. Readers interested in Jewish history, war stories, or women's lives in antiquity should check out The Dovekeepers, which "makes ancient history live and breathe" (Booklist).
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