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In 480 BC the Persian Empire was once again trying to invade ancient Greece. Under the reign of King Xerxes, an invincible army of a recorded 2 million was marching downwards to enslave all Greeks. An elite force of three hundred Spartans tackled the suicide mission of stalling the Persian wave of doom.
They fought in the narrows of Thermopylae and held on for 6 days, ultimately being forced to battle with their bare hands and teeth before being defeated. Their spears may have been broken, but their spirit remains adamant. Their valour changed the course of history and became the matter of legend. Steven Pressfield meticulously weaves history and fiction together to create a riveting account of that era's most famous clash. A truly fascinating read.
The 1943-born Steven Pressfield lavishly constructs his stories using a very unique style. His characteristic techniques are worth savouring and reading at least one of his works is strongly recommended if you are interested in literature and/or writing.
Most critics focus on the chilling way he gloriously recounts battles, narrating them in an epic fashion worthy of Homer's ageless tales. He deals with historic clashes of great importance and manages to transcend their essence to us, reading about them millennia afterwards. His clever and careful use of native vocabulary also aids in the immersion of the reader.
Personally, I find another aspect of his narrative even more interesting and notable: Pressfield puts you not in the position of the hero, as is standard fare, but tells his story through the eyes of the frightened friend, concerned family and lacking soldier. An ingenious trick that makes it much easier to convey the awe-inspiring qualities of the undaunted hero.
Characters getting the "first-person" treatment are not just means to an end either, as they are fully developed and intrigue the reader to care about them, adding yet another layer to the larger story.
After his army's victory in Thermopylae, King Xerxes fervently wanted more information on the rare soldiers that confronted his limitless army, those reckless Spartans that faced insurmountable odds and refused to surrender even though their only alternative was gruesome death.
Amongst the battlefield full of fallen Spartans and their allies, only one Greek was found that had any hope of surviving. Indeed, after extensive care provided by Persia's top surgeons, Xeones regained enough strength to speak and was asked to recount his "infantryman's tale" of the Spartan way of life and the events leading to and including the battle of Thermopylae.
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Thus, the story of "Gates of Fire" can be split into two different timelines.
The novel begins with the "current" timeline and everything taking place there is printed in italics. It actually is the historian's own notes and remarks, as he fills out the details between Xeones' narratives and provides additional information on the grander scheme of the war and the Persian view of the events.
The meat of the book takes place in Xeones' timeline. He quickly connects with the reader by describing his last moments at the Gates and then progressively tells his story, growing up as a young boy that lost his homeland and was forced to live the life of a rogue. He explains how fate eventually saw him living in Sparta, quickly rising through its ranks of non-native inhabitants and coming to serve one of the bravest Spartans: Dienekes. Destiny also played its part in Dienekes becoming one of the select 300 chosen to forfeit their lives and head to Thermopylae, sealing his squire's future as well.
Although the battle of Thermopylae is the event everything revolves around, the magnificence of the warriors that participated and how it affected the war, quaint sub-plots are constructed using these characters. Pressfield's portrayal of the battle is truly enlightening, but its outcome is no secret; thus, Xeones and the historian help in adding a bit more mystery and depth in "Gates of Fire".
Pressfield fantastically merges fable and fact together in his thrilling tale and little suspension of belief is required to delve into it. Truth is oftentimes stranger, and more fascinating, than fiction and the parts of the story harder to believe are most probably those that are actually recorded in history books.
Chances are, "Gates of Fire" is indeed a document that King Xerxes would have been thrilled to read and it certainly surpasses my "mere mortal" standards.
Steven Pressfield further cemented himself as a master of war-epics set in ancient Greece with the release of "Tides of War" in 2000, 2 years after "Gates of Fire". It recounts the Peloponnesian War that started in 431 BC and heavily focuses on the vagrant genius of General Alcibiades. While a good novel, it doesn't quite reach the levels of his first book. These levels were reached with and possibly surpassed by the excellent "Last of the Amazons", set in 1250 BC. His latest book is "Alexander: The Virtues of War", where he uses a first person narrative.
His next book will also feature Alexander the Great: "The Afghan Campaign" covers the Macedonian's invasion of the Afghan Kingdoms in 330 BC. The lack of an "of" in the title is, however, ominous.
Before recounting massive struggles, Pressfield wrote a book about golf. Amazingly, "The Legend of Bagger Vance" remains his only work that has been transcribed for the silver screen. Finally, in "The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle" the seasoned writer shares some of his creative wisdom.
The upcoming movie "300" has no relation to Pressfield, as it is a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels that also deal with the battle of Thermopylae. Similarities are inevitable, like the use of the historic quote from "Gates of Fire" protagonist Dienekes: When informed of the fact that Persian archers are so numerous that their volleys block out the sun, he commented "Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade".
Steven Pressfield is an incredible writer, an essential read for any fan of literature regardless of subject matter preferences. His first book is the best place to start as "Gates of Fire" features one of the most remarkable battles in history as the culminating point. "Last of the Amazons" is another solid candidate, but chronological precedence breaks the tie. Even if the Spartan military spirit is admired, "Gates of Fire", like most quality novels of its kind, doesn't promote war and instead poses some of the thought-provoking questions we all should have about the issue. Some heavy themes are present that raise the age barrier to over 16, to my estimation. So if you are 17+, "Gates of Fire" deserves to be one of the top choices next time you go novel-fishing.