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Set just after the second world war, The Prince of Clouds follows the fortunes of one Colonel Carlo Terzo, a reluctant soldier, but a brilliant military strategist. Having never fired a shot in anger, the colonel has spent the war documenting the Italian campaign, detailing the troop movements, describing the battles, and explaining both the reasons for victory and the despairing ineptitude of certain Italian generals. He's a thinker, an academic, and is the same in life as in war. He's quiet, slightly awkward, always needing a plan, a system with which to keep the outside world at bay. That's not to say he's a loner though. In the chaos after the war, he finds himself retired in Palermo, with a beautiful, intelligent Russian aristocratic wife, and teaching a young poet some of the strategy of war in the hope of instilling some military discipline. This is just the beginning though, with Terzo slowly being pulled into a local clandestine love affair and even having to finally put his military theory to the test.
"I know the manoeuvre for every war, but not know how to live"
I won't go on and spoil the plot, but hopefully my brief synopsis gives you an idea that this is a wide-ranging, intellectual-yet-romantic book. At first the book seemed a little too heavy on military strategy, with maps and explanations of ancient battles. Despite having limited interest in intricacies of war, I still found the descriptions of these various old battles, from Napoleon to Hannibal fascinating. The book is really well written, and it's obvious that the author, Gianni Riotta, really knows and enjoys military strategy. That passion is contagious. There's a lot more to the book than just war though. In between a few love stories, local and ancient history and the background of a post-war Sicily, the Prince of Clouds manages to be a page-turner that leaves an indelible mark on the reader. I feel educated and moved, and, to be honest, I didn't want it to stop.
Scratching my head to think of negatives, my only criticism would be that it starts quite slowly and some of the early strategy pieces seem overwrought and laborious. However, the climatic end of the book more than makes up for the slow beginning.
It's easy then for me to recommend The Prince of Clouds. It's a beautifully written, thoughtful book, packed with detailed knowledge of both war and history, while written with the light touch of a true romantic. It's destined to become a modern classic.
My version of the book was printed in 2001 by Flamingo Press (in the UK). If you'd like a copy, it can be found on Amazon, in the LazioExplorer Store.