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Merle

Merle

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae - Steven Pressfield A few years ago I read and loved Pressfield's The Afghan Campaign, which is apparently one of his minor works, so I expected to be blown away by this one. Unlike most readers, though, while I think it's competently written, I was never able to enjoy it.

Gates of Fire is primarily about the battle at Thermopylae, as told through the eyes of Xeones, a young squire. Much of the book deals with Xeones's life, Spartan military training, and the lead-up to the famous battle, but the battle itself definitely gets its share of attention.

First, the good stuff. Gates of Fire is a decently written book, without fluff, and at his best Pressfield deals with intensely emotional moments in a very effective understated way. Although this book was apparently part of the inspiration for that ridiculous movie, 300, it's not stupid or over-the-top. Pressfield deals with war in such a way that you can see how people come to diametrically opposed conclusions about it--why some people think it's glorious and want to be part of it, and why others think it's hell. And while I wasn't a stranger to these historical events before reading the book, I still learned some things from it (did you know the Spartans had allies at Thermopylae? Me neither).

And now, the problems:

1) It's very heavy on the history, at the expense of the fiction. Pressfield gives us info-dumps about Spartan culture, for instance, rather than weaving it into the story. And there's also long narrative stretches about military strategy and training and so on. If you're like me--you like historical fiction, but don't read history books for fun--it can be rough going. Especially since much of it is quite densely written, with lots of names and Greek terms thrown at the reader without any context.

2) Relatedly, the book doesn't really have a main character, or anyone I was able to connect to. Xeones is the narrator, but not really the protagonist (unlike the narrator in The Afghan Campaign); he tends to disappear into the background and narrate in the third person, and sometimes it's not even clear if he's present or not. And while there are some decent secondary characters, like Dienekes and Alexandros, none of them are the protagonist either. I'm sure this is intentional: it's a book about a group, not about an individual, and the Spartans fought as a unit; focusing on individual heroics might seem to cheapen that. But when the main character is "the Spartans" and there's less focus on individual character development, again, it makes the book feel more like history than fiction. As is, everybody died (including Xeones) and I didn't give a flip, which is kind of lame. I don't expect or want to be crushed by every major character death in a book that I read, which would be exhausting, but this kind of drama ought to have summoned a least a little emotion.

3) Finally, the book is told in a circuitous way; I found the jumping back and forth in time a bit distracting, but more off-putting was the way Xeones would forecast an event or subplot before narrating it in detail later. Already knowing how Thermopylae turned out, I was hoping for some suspense in the details, but there too Pressfield tells us the end before getting started on the story.

So in the end, while I wouldn't call this an objectively bad book, I didn't find it particularly compelling or rewarding, and was glad to be done with it. Obviously, tons of people love it, and if you are a military history buff you should definitely give it a try. And it's definitely more male-oriented, so if you're a guy you probably shouldn't let my review turn you off. But it may be disappointing to the casual reader, especially the casual female reader. It certainly was to me.