cover image The World: A Family History of Humanity

The World: A Family History of Humanity

Simon Sebag Montefiore. Knopf, $45 (1,344p) ISBN 978-0-525-65953-2

Violence, treachery, and sex are the motors of history in this sweeping chronicle. Historian and novelist Montefiore (The Romanovs) surveys wars, massacres, revolutions, plagues, famine, and socioeconomic transformations from the rise of the Mesopotamian city states to the Biden administration, giving China, India, Africa, central Asia, and pre-Columbian America as much space as the West. Focusing on ruling dynasties and their dysfunctions, Montefiore notes that the Ottoman Empire’s official succession procedure included royal sons killing each other off, and that the future Frederick the Great of Prussia was forced by his father to watch the beheading of his best friend for their presumed homosexual affair. Montefiore makes women central to the story, as queens and regents or as mothers and mistresses manipulating feckless kings. (They also hold their own in mayhem: the seventh-century Chinese royal concubine Miss Wu allegedly broke up Emperor Gaozong’s marriage by killing her own infant daughter and framing the Empress for murder.) And there’s plenty of sex, with the orgies of Rodrigo Borgia—aka Pope Alexander VI—perhaps taking the prize for debauchery. Setting a whirlwind pace, Montefiore skillfully guides readers through the tumult with elegant prose and evocative character sketches. It’s a bravura performance. (May)