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Gates of Fire Hardcover – October 20, 1998
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Thus reads an ancient stone at Thermopylae in northern Greece, the site of one of the world's greatest battles for freedom. Here, in 480 B.C., on a narrow mountain pass above the crystalline Aegean, 300 Spartan knights and their allies faced the massive forces of Xerxes, King of Persia. From the start, there was no question but that the Spartans would perish. In Gates of Fire, however, Steven Pressfield makes their courageous defense--and eventual extinction--unbearably suspenseful.
In the tradition of Mary Renault, this historical novel unfolds in flashback. Xeo, the sole Spartan survivor of Thermopylae, has been captured by the Persians, and Xerxes himself presses his young captive to reveal how his tiny cohort kept more than 100,000 Persians at bay for a week. Xeo, however, begins at the beginning, when his childhood home in northern Greece was overrun and he escaped to Sparta. There he is drafted into the elite Spartan guard and rigorously schooled in the art of war--an education brutal enough to destroy half the students, but (oddly enough) not without humor: "The more miserable the conditions, the more convulsing the jokes became, or at least that's how it seems," Xeo recalls. His companions in arms are Alexandros, a gentle boy who turns out to be the most courageous of all, and Rooster, an angry, half-Messenian youth.
Pressfield's descriptions of war are breathtaking in their immediacy. They are also meticulously assembled out of physical detail and crisp, uncluttered metaphor:
The forerank of the enemy collapsed immediately as the first shock hit it; the body-length shields seemed to implode rearward, their anchoring spikes rooted slinging from the earth like tent pins in a gale. The forerank archers were literally bowled off their feet, their wall-like shields caving in upon them like fortress redoubts under the assault of the ram.... The valor of the individual Medes was beyond question, but their light hacking blades were harmless as toys; against the massed wall of Spartan armor, they might as well have been defending themselves with reeds or fennel stalks.Alas, even this human barrier was bound to collapse, as we knew all along it would. "War is work, not mystery," Xeo laments. But Pressfield's epic seems to make the opposite argument: courage on this scale is not merely inspiring but ultimately mysterious. --Marianne Painter
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
This story is told through the eyes of a Spartan slave who comes to admire his Spartan masters' fraternity, loyalty, and pride they have for themselves, their laws, and their city. It begins after the battle where the slave is wounded, and through a Persian interpreter, recounts his odyssey to Sparta, and his life that led to the moment the battle is over.
Pressfield brings us several ironies in this tale based upon historical fact. The Spartans who ruled the Peloponnesus ruthlessly seem to be the least likely saviors of a civilization from which we draw our roots. The Spartans were the only city-state that could have rallied the other Greeks to fight. And King Leonidas was the only Spartan who thought the best way to preserve his city was to preserve everything Greek. He sacrificed his life and lives of his men to rally a disunited country to attack, and defeat a ruthless invader which they did within the year.
It is also ironic that the Spartans who owned and killed slaves on a regular basis, saved their countrymen from becoming slaves themselves, and in a time of absolute crisis provided the leadership they were so reluctant to give, that saved Greece in the end.
In King Leonidas, Pressfield describes a king who feels it his duty to serve his people rather than being served.Read more ›
1) He Introduces elements of Ancient Greek culture to give modern readers (many of whom were shorted on ancient history by the modern educational system) familiarity with the historical and cultural context of the novel.
2) He digs deeply into the psychology of creating a social bonding unique to competitive sports and military groups: small unit cohesion. This exposition is crucial when trying to paint a sympathetic picture of men striving to kill one another at arm's length. (Or at any distance, for that matter.)
3) He paints a vivid "spearman's-eye-view" of battle by sword, shield, and spear. The requirement for vivid imagery should not be taken lightly. Today's reader is brought up in a very visual environment, what with TV and the superb directing, cinematography, and special effects of Hollywood productions. Evoking bold images with the written word is often necessary to sustain the interest of the video generation (this includes far too many Baby Boomers, in which demographic, alas, this reviewer falls.)
4) He builds an emotional bridge between the characters and the reader. The difficulty in creating this bridge, between a modern reader and an authentic ancient person, is that the "modern" viewpoint is frequently overwritten onto the ancient character(s). Most of the non-historical characters in Gates of Fire are too modern for my taste, however the linkage works well enough for the story to retain coherence.Read more ›
The jacket blurbs say "epic," and here "epic" doesn't just mean "long and involved." This historical novel is so true to its times that Homer's blend of perspective and immediacy, Herotodus' human interest and recognition of irony, the power of the gods and of fate are recognizable as you read--as well as a touch of dialogue that is about to become Platonic. By the time the first epic simile appeared in a battle narrative, Pressfield's world and the warrior society and life he had animated stood so solidly behind it that it was as powerfully moving, at least for this reader, as those of the Iliad.
Also moving were the respect and richness with which this Greek world was imagined. The result is a historical novel whose life invades the present. "What is the opposite of fear? How do I live? What is worth dying for?" As a reader you do march out with the army. You find yourself on a battlefield, not in a table-of-contents from a history book.
I recommend this book without reserve to anyone interested in Greek civilization, army life, military history, a meditation on life and time and sacrifice, or simply a good novel. Many thanks to Mr. Pressfield.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
One of my all-time favorite books. A plausibly realistic story of the famous Thermopylae battle, which is what the "300" comic trade paperback and movie were loosely based... Read morePublished 1 day ago by 100k
There are no words in the English language that can truly capture my feelings about this book. I read it, at least, a couple of times a year. Read morePublished 4 days ago by technopoetic
Mr. Pressfield's book really gives one a feel for what the Spartan way of life was prior to the battle of Thermopylae.Published 5 days ago by Mark
This book was recommended by my English professor and it's really a good readPublished 6 days ago by youthgonewild413
Great portrayal of the battle of Thermopylae. And a must read if you are in the military or love learning about the warrior ethos.Published 12 days ago by Mike G.
This is a soldier's tale. The reason a common man fights and will go to wars is the brother at his shoulder. I thought it was great.Published 18 days ago by Sara
Great story. Even better than the movie 300, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This gave more insight into what probably happened and the final outcome as a result of the sacrifice... Read morePublished 22 days ago by azlee
Not the best book I have read. As my father in law said, he did his plebe year at the Naval Academy; reading about it again was not that great. Read morePublished 27 days ago by Missie