Friday, October 28, 2011

Book Review - Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire - Steven Pressfield:

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

This is one of those books that has received unanimous praise. Look on and out of 117 reviews it gets an average of 5 stars. So you could imagine my level of expectation before I started reading the book, especially considering it is based on a period of Ancient history I studied at university and loved.

It is fair to say then that I was initially disappointed. The opening couple of pages left me wondering what I had started reading. It felt like I was reading Herodotus all over again - whilst not a bad thing, it is not something I read for leisure.

As the book progressed though, the story settled into a rhythm. It focuses on the captured Xeo the sole surviving member of the Spartans. Xeo is forced to recount the tale of the battle of Thermopylae for the Persian king Xerxes.

Xeo starts his tale with his childhood and flashes to different key points in his life. Sometimes this happens chronologically and other times it shifts to the present battle. This can be confusing as Pressfield recounts the history as he goes along and it easy to get lost for a few paragraphs if you are not familiar with it.

I also wonder how someone who is not familiar with the Greek names would get on with the story as some of them are quite similar, but I guess the 5 star reviews suggest this is not a problem.

If I am honest, for the first two thirds of this novel although I was enjoying the story I struggled to see where all the 5 star reviews were coming from. The book although far more historically accurate did not set itself apart from anything I had read like Conn Iggulden’s Genghis Khan’s series. However, something happened over the final third of the book where my opinion towards the story changed from merely enjoying to the book to loving it.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this was, especially as the final third consists almost entirely of the battle itself. Personally I do not like big battle scenes and much prefer character based novels. However, Pressfield really captures the imagination. The deeds of the Spartan’s although glorified are not shown off to make each warrior look good. Instead Pressfield concentrates on the other side of war. The fact that the Spartan’s were crawling about from exhaustion at the end of the first skirmish of the first day really brought home to me how gruelling an ordeal the battle was.

Without realising it, I had come to care for the characters. Dienekes in particular stands out. Despite his renown in battle, the battle commander shows a greater philosophical side, particularly in his pursuit to the answer, “what is the opposite of fear?”

Other stand outs are the conflicted Rooster and the coming of ages of heroes like Alexandros. Pressfield also does justice to the other allies who fought at the battle, in particular the Thespians whose deeds are often overlooked when this story is told.

Everyone of King Leonides speeches hits the spot and the indifference of Xerxes towards his conscripted army makes you route for the Spartans even more.

Away from the battle other characters are well developed. Unusually for ancient history the women are given high prominence and their importance is really highlighted by Pressfield.

This novel is faultlessly researched and does justice to the monumental struggle that occurred back in 480 BC. Despite the “good rather than great start,” Gates of Fire is a tale of heroes, of love, of courage and the will to survive. One that is thoroughly recommended. My Rating: 8.9