cover image Victus


Albert S%C3%A1nchez Pi%C3%B1ol, trans. from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead and Daniel Hahn . Harper, $29.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-06-232396-5

Spanish writer Pi%C3%B1ol's odd, hyper-reseached historical novel offers a play-by-play of Catalonia's 1714 annexation by Spain that hardly skips a battle or neglects to namecheck a general in its sprawling account of the War of Spanish Succession. Our guide is the ancient, Catalan-born strategist Marti Zuvi, who dictates (to his hapless nurse) the story of how, as a youth, he studies engineering%E2%80%94the science of ramparts and sieges%E2%80%94at the famous Castle Bazoches, in French Burgany, a favorite of the learned Marquis de Vauban. But it is on the field, at the decisive Battle of Almansa, that Zuvi gains his real education. There he meets James Fitz-James, the Duke of Berwick (or, as Zuvi calls him, "Jimmy"), the general who will one day take Barcelona. But before then, Zuvi will find acceptance among misfits within the besieged city gates, fight among both Bourbons and rebel mercenaries, and concoct an astonishing strategy that will take all his training in warfare to survive. It's hard to imagine another work of fiction could be as immersed in its period as this; the novel comes with a timeline, a long list of historically-based characters, and diagrams of the various fortresses and townships that punctuate the uncompromised battle scenes. In fact, Pi%C3%B1ol has written less of a novel than a rollicking guided history, meaning that his book will be beloved by history buffs and medievalists%E2%80%94but anyone expecting deep pathos, lively plot twists or even particularly stylish prose is setting themselves up for dissapointment. (Sept.)