This is a bold and audacious work, an example of what comparative politics can be but rarely is. Samuels' interests are not the narrow policy arenas, such as pension reform, that tend to dominate comparative work, but rather questions that have been central to Japanese and Italian societies since the beginning of the modern nation-state: how to become rich, "normal" great powers. And while much of the field is focused on structural constraints -- economic and social forces, political institutions, and historical legacies -- Machiavelli's Children makes a strong claim for the importance of the individual agency of leaders who try to overcome larger constraints and sometimes succeed.
The use of Italy and Japan is somewhat counterintuitive but provides an effective and highly entertaining springboard. Each chapter pairs the experience of a leader with a decision he made at a critical juncture. For Samuels, leadership is the constant manipulation of and movement between the past and the future. Bullying and buying off the opposition may work, but the most effective leaders actively remake the past in pursuit of the future. As Samuels compellingly illustrates, history enhances choice more than it restricts it.