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Reviews of Ilium by Lea Carpenter


A Novel

by Lea Carpenter

Ilium by Lea Carpenter X
Ilium by Lea Carpenter
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Jan 2024, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Book Summary

Set in the dark world of international espionage, from London to Mallorca, Croatia, Paris, and Cap Ferret: the gripping and suspenseful story of a young woman who unwittingly becomes a perfect asset in the long overdue finale of a covert special op

The young English narrator of Lea Carpenter's dazzling new novel has grown up unhappily in London, dreaming of escape, pretending to be someone else and obsessed with a locked private garden. On the eve of her twenty-first birthday, at a party near that garden, she meets its charismatic and mysterious new owner, Marcus, thirty-three years older, who sweeps her off her feet. Before long they are married at his finca in Mallorca, and at last she has escaped into a new role – but at what price? On their honeymoon in Croatia, Marcus reveals there is something she can do for him—a plan is in place and she can help with "a favor."

This turns out to be posing as an art advisor to a family on Cap Ferret, where Marcus asks her to simply "listen." A helicopter deposits her at a remote, highly guarded and lavishly appointed compound on a spit of land in the Atlantic. It's presided over by an enigmatic, charming patriarch Edouard, along with his wife Dasha, children Nikki and Felix, and populated by a revolving cast of other guests—some suspicious, some intriguing, perhaps none, like her, what they seem.

Brilliantly compelling, this is a spellbinding and unexpectedly poignant story of a long- planned, high-stakes CIA-Mossad operation that only needed the right asset to complete.

Coming soon

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Let me confess that I don't watch a lot of spy movies or read spy novels because the plots are too much to keep up with. Please consider that information an extra endorsement for Ilium by Lea Carpenter, a spy novel that's blissfully accessible. Perhaps I clicked with it because it's much more than a spy novel; it's a story about identity and relationships of all kinds. While I took in the suspenseful narrative I also found myself having a lot of Carrie Bradshaw-esque questions about love. How well do we know the people we love? How much deception is okay? What happens when we don't know who to trust?..continued

Full Review Members Only (690 words)

(Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin).

Media Reviews

Good Morning America
Exquisite… Ilium is like James Bond as told by the New Yorker

Minneapolis Star Tribune
The tension of espionage, grief and ... longing ... come together in [Ilium] ... Brilliant... . A work of dazzling eloquence and sensitivity.

Shelf Awareness
Ilium is an espionage thriller in its richly wrought and detailed plot; but its spotlight falls centrally on the narrator herself, whose yearning for a role to play earns her a bigger one than she could have imagined. The dreamy tone of this sparkling, riveting story sets up a memorable counterpoint to its intrigue. A lonely young woman falls in love and finds herself at the center of a spy mission in this mesmerizing, moving story about different kinds of seduction.

Reminiscent of the spare, strobe-lit storytelling of the late Joan Didion, Carpenter shows how wealth and sophistication paper over moral rot and how human attachment is a vulnerability when only posing and posturing keep you alive.

Chris Bohjalian, The New York Times
Lea Carpenter clearly knows the world of espionage well ... Carpenter knows how to dish out the dread that a spy story needs ... Moral ambiguity ... seems to fascinate Carpenter, the way living a double life and every day making your cover, that critical and deeply embedded lie, feel real to everyone around you. It's also what makes Ilium such an unexpectedly moving novel.

The Washington Post
A lonely young woman yearning for travel, risk and excitement is swept off her feet by an older man who lives the life of her dreams... . In this literary spy novel, Carpenter considers whether it is possible to be on different sides of a war yet still embrace a shared humanity.

Booklist (starred review)
Refreshingly cerebral, literary, and cunningly cinematic ... [Ilium is an] exploration of personal moral ambiguity playing out in the world of international intrigue.

BookPage (starred review)
Ilium is a masterful literary novel posing as a spy novel, and succeeds brilliantly on both levels.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
With its dreamily detached narration and elliptical feel, Carpenter's third novel ... is less interested in spy vs. spy ... than the lack of reliable truths in people's lives and the ways they allow themselves to be formed by events beyond their control... . An edgy confessional novel with the trappings of spy fiction.

Publishers Weekly
Much of the story is framed as the narrator's reflection on her long-ago induction into the 'secret world' as an unwitting pawn, and while Carpenter wrings some pathos out of that conceit, her narrative elides too much and holds readers at too great a remove to truly captivate.

Author Blurb Chris Pavone, author of Two Nights in Lisbon
Here is the beating heart of a great espionage novel: devious manipulations and moral ambiguity within intimate relationships, with life-or-death consequences. Ilium delivers it all, plus glamorous international settings, complex characters, and sparkling prose. A tremendously satisfying read.

Author Blurb Christopher Bollen, author of The Lost Americans
Ilium goes well beyond offering an exciting take on espionage literature. Lea Carpenter has built an entirely new wing onto the genre. Intricate, propulsive, rendered with deft emotion, this female-centric spy story has a deeply human heart.

Author Blurb Lisa Taddeo, author of Animal
Spellbindingly-plotted and told in frank, elegant prose, Ilium is a beautiful book about love and war and innocence lost. Carpenter's depiction of espionage is captivating, while the questions the novel surfaces about identity are perfectly devastating.

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Beyond the Book

Escape and Evasion Maps

A silk escape and evasion mapIn Lea Carpenter's Ilium, some of the spies have escape and evasion maps. Also known as escape maps or silk maps, these are scarves imprinted with maps that intelligence officers and soldiers have historically used when they've ended up behind enemy lines. They offer information about how best to escape or at least find somewhere safe to hide.

These maps were heavily used by Allied forces in World War II thanks to the genius of British intelligence officer Christopher Clayton Hutton. Hutton's career path was eclectic (including stints as a pilot and film marketer), as was the man himself. A fan of Houdini, Hutton used his love of escapes in his capacity as Technical Officer in the Escape Department at MI9.

Making escape maps was one ...

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