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Friday, May 29, 2009

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
audio book: 18 hours


*** The Plot ***

This historical fiction novel tells the story of the epic ancient battle at Thermopylae, the one where 300 Spartans (and their allies) stood against the combined might of the Persian empire and fought to their deaths. The story is told by a fictitious lone survivor, a servant (squire) named Xeo. In this story the Persian king Xerxes was so moved by the valor of the Spartans that he wanted to know more about who these men really were. When his soldiers find a wounded Xeo on the battlefield after the Persian victory they brought him to the King's historian who writes down his story for the King to read later.

For a great quick overview of the battle of Thermopylae read the beginning of the Wikipedia article on it here.

NOTE: The pictures below come from Wikipedia also. The first are Greek warriors in a phalanx, the second are Persian warriors, and the third is a depcition of the battle with Spartan King Leonidas at the center.

*** Why I Read It (or listened to it) ***

I recently raved about The Saxon Chronicles, a series by Bernard Cornwell that relates the story of the first true King of England, Alfred the Great. One of the things I loved so much about those books was the authenticity of the story; the language, the relationships, the battles (!!!) all seems to be true snapshots of what life was really like back then. Plus Cornwell told a really great story.

Once I finished the series I was looking for something to follow it up with and that's when Lezlie reviewed one of Steven Pressfield's books. In her review she says "Looking for a good war novel? Steven Pressfield is your man. [...] No one I've read writes battle scenes the way Pressfield can." For me that was enough of an endorsement - I hopped over to my library's website and requested a few of Pressfield's audio books that very day.

*** What I Liked ***

By having the story told by a survivor rather than a 3rd person narrator the story became more personal. The King - and hence the reader (or listener in my case) - learns about the background of the men in a believable way. Xeo seeks to explain their actions on the battlefield but he can only do that by explaining who these men were BEFORE the battle. Through his descriptions we learn what it was like to be Spartan: boys trained from birth to fight, women valued for their stoicism, all people expected to sacrifice for their city, the intense relationships between men who've fought side by side, and so much more. And because Xeo was not a Spartan himself, we learn what life was like for citizens of other cities in that era and how they differed from citizens of Sparta.

I loved the characters in this book, even the ones who at first seemed unlovable: Polynikes - the Olympic champion who thinks he is better than everyone else, Decton - the slave who also thinks he is better than everyone else, Areti - wife of Xeo's master and a true Spartan woman, and so many, many others. Not all of them were as fully fleshed out as I'd like but I still loved getting to know them.

*** What Didn't Work For Me ***

On the whole I really enjoyed this book but there were a few things that just didn't work for me.

First, the 1st person point-of-view made for an engaging story but at times it felt more like a 3rd person narrator. Specifically there were times when I thought "How does Xeo know this stuff? How could he be telling this part of the story?"

That leads to my second issue. I know that the point of the book is to tell the tale of the actual battle at Thermopylae but after a few days of battle I got a bit overwhelmed. Everything was so BIG - the battle, the number of people involved, the whole story - and Xeo's voice got lost in all that. What I loved so much about the battles in The Saxon Chronicles is that you never forgot who was fighting and you always felt like you were right there with that fighter; it was personal. This book was very different - Xeo usually seemed to be watching from afar, and I didn't like that as much.

And one final thing that bugged me is the language. The author was trying to convey the rough talk of soldiers and the crude language they used by translating it into modern language and it just didn't work for me. Again I compared it to the language used in The Saxon Chronicles. There the language seemed to fit the era while here it did not. But that is just my opinion - maybe you'd disagree.

*** Final Thoughts and Other Reviews ***

Despite my complaints I did enjoy this book. It was the author's first book and he has written several since - I'm hopeful that the issues I had with this one won't appear in his others. I've already got TIDES OF WAR (another Pressfield novel) in my car ready to pop in the cassette player on my next ride to work.

And to be completely honest, I did have tears in my eyes as I listened to the final warriors die in the very end of the battle.

If you're on the fence about this book here's a link to a long excerpt. It depicts one of the more brutal aspects of a Spartan boy's training and will give you a good idea what you can expect from GATES OF FIRE. If you can appreciate that excerpt then I recommend you read this book. If not, then this book is not for you.

Have you read any of Pressfield's books? My search for reviews came up lacking so please let me know if you have reviewed any of them.

10 comments:

Lezlie said...

I'm glad you did like it, if not as much as I did. It is a harsh book, but I cried when King Leonidas gave his final speech. I'm such a sissy. :-) I really liked "Last of the Amazons" by Pressfield also.

Lezlie

Heather J. said...

Lezlie - You know, I just went back and added one sentence to my review: "And to be completely honest, I did have tears in my eyes as I listened to the final warriors die in the very end of the battle."

I am completely ready to give his next book a try. Thanks again for turning me on to him!

chartroose said...

No, I haven't read Pressfield, but I am interested in Thermopylae and the 300. Maybe I'll get around to trying Cornwell someday. My Dad loves him!

Heather J. said...

chartroose - There are certain Cornwells that I love and others that I hate. I AM excited about my next Pressfield though. I hope you'll try one or the other of these authors!

Jenny Girl said...

Listening to a battle scene has got to be tough, but hey you made it! It always amazes me the situations that people went through in the past. What a tough bunch!
Great review!

Heather J. said...

Jenny Girl - That's true, but one author who does an excellent job with battles is Bernard Cornwell. Either way, you're right - it was TOUGH back then!

Literary Feline said...

I don't know if this is a book I would pick up, but there are other books by this author that do interest me. It's more a subject matter issue than anything else. I read Killing Rommel last year by the author and really liked it.

Heather J. said...

Literary Feline - Too funny ... the Rommel book didn't interest me at all - I was drawn to the ancient stories. :)

josbookshelf said...

Hi! I did read and review Gates of Fire just a few weeks back. I loved the book! One of the best battle books I've read. Now, I see you've read and raved about Bernard Cronwell's Saxon chronicles. Got to get me those! :)

Heather J. said...

Jo - thanks for coming by! I linked to your review in my post. :)

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