Lost Battles: Gates of Fire

Target: Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

Profile: Historical Fiction, Military

Summary: From the back cover, “At Thermopylae, a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece, the feared and admired Spartan soldiers stood three hundred strong. Theirs was a suicide mission, to hold the pass against the invading millions of the mighty Persian army.

Day after bloody day they withstood the terrible onslaught, buying time for the Greeks to rally their forces. Born into a cult of spiritual courage, physical endurance, and unmatched battle skill, the Spartans would be remembered for the greatest military stand in history—one that would not end until the rocks were awash with blood, leaving only one gravely injured Spartan squire to tell the tale….

After Action Report:

This review was originally part of the 2011 Cannonball Read.  The book and review were completed then, but went unpublished due to a data management error.

Historical fiction is a tricky genre that has been ridden roughshod over by the apparently increasing need to fantasize our history.  Between the Steampunk and Urban Fantasy movements, Hollywood’s desire to insert vampires into every era of history, and the natural shaky ground between history and mythology that occurs as we move backwards in time, there is very little ‘real’ historical fiction being written anymore.  Even Gates of Fire dates to 1998 (which is starting to make me feel old…)

The key to really good historical fiction lies in adopting a unique and interesting viewpoint.  This is particularly true of the big events of history where the readers, ostensibly, know the outcome and even some of the details.  Pressfield provides exactly what is needed in the form of Xeones, a helot survivor of the final clash of Spartan and Persian forces, being kept alive at a whim of Xerxes to learn what could have possibly driven the Spartans to the unimaginable act of heroism required to hold their ground against the greatest fighting force ever assembled.

Xeones is an unlikely narrator in that he is an intelligent but idealistic mouthpiece for the Spartan ideal, while not actually being Spartan.  About a third of his rambling story explains his origins as an orphan of a brutal attack by another Greek tribe.  How, after years in the wild, he became enamored with the Spartan way of life and eventually joined them as a helot squire, half slave, half trusted valet.  Some of his personal narrative verges on uninteresting, but by the end of the novel, I had much more emotional investment in his personal journey than in that of the rest of the cast so I suppose it paid off.

Xeones also puts a lot of time into describing the lifestyle and training of a Spartan warrior. Between the training and the backstories, it is almost surprising that Pressfield had time to get to the actual battle.  Bits and pieces of the Greek’s last stand punctuate the slow narrative like tiny flurries of razorblades; catching and tearing at your interest while dragging you on to the next section for fear of being torn apart in the extremely visceral, descriptive language.

Pressfield does a much better job of reflecting history, in that the 300 Spartan legionaries are joined in battle by their significant support personnel as well as small forces from the lesser Greek city-states.  In the heat and blood of the battle, the Spartan’s lofty ideals of the perfect warrior are tested by their allies as much as by the Persians.  Because of his status as Spartant convert, Xeones unconsciously compares the Spartan lifestyle with the Greek ideal and holds it up for the Persians (and the readers) to marvel over.  These were a fiercely independent people who believed that the glory of the individual and the glory of the state were one and the same. They seamlessly blended honor, nationalism and personal pride into a warrior philosophy that would echo as legend throughout history.

We look to history for inspiration and Pressfield has captured in Gates of Fire a mercurial vision of the past that resonates with our modern era as surely as it captured the imaginations of those who drove the Persians from Greece.  There can be no greater triumph for any author of historical fiction.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in Cannonball Reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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