Felipe Fernández-Armesto at Literary Review:
On the 'Golfing for Cats' principle, Noel Malcolm's publishers thought, presumably, that knights, corsairs, Jesuits and spies were saleable, whereas the real subject of Malcolm's new book, which might be expressed as 'A Reconstruction of the Political Activities of Members of Two Related Albanian Families in the Late Sixteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans', would be poor window-dressing. But good stories, well told, made bestsellers of The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. We can be honest about Agents of Empire without fear of impeding sales.
Malcolm's protagonists are the Bruni and Bruti dynasties, who came from Venice to settle in Ulcinj, a predominantly Albanian-speaking port on the Venetian-dominated fringe of the Adriatic, in what is now Montenegro. They inhabited and traversed a frontier zone, hovering between Ottoman and Venetian empires, Spanish and Italian spheres of influence, Christendom and Islam, Roman and Eastern Churches and Romance, Slavic, Albanian, Greek and Turkish language areas. From a historian's point of view, it was a great place to live – one of those fateful peripheries where states and civilisations rub against each other and generate seismic effects. Malcolm was wise to look to this region for better, more vivid and more revealing insights than one gets from the usual metropolitan skylines. From the dwellers' perspective, however, the homeland of the Bruni and Bruti was dangerous, unstable and racked by war, want, plague and piracy. To Malcolm's indefatigable scholarship it yields stories of triumph and tragedy as compelling as any in fiction.