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The Isle of Stone: A Novel of Ancient Sparta Mass Market Paperback – December 6, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Having brought John Paul Jones and Alexander the Great to life, Nicastro (Empire of Ashes) turns his formidable skills as a historical novelist on an obscure episode in the Peloponnesian War, that almost three-decade conflict between Athens and Sparta, which he labels antiquity's "war to end all wars." The choice to have a narrow focus, rather than an all-encompassing epic sweep, proves a wise one, as it enables Nicastro to go into nitty-gritty detail about the lifestyles of Greece in 425 B.C., making the harsh Spartan attitudes, for example, comprehensible, if not acceptable, to a modern sensibility. The author instills emotional depth in his three main characters—Damatria, a wealthy Spartan woman, and her two sons, Antalcidas and Epitadas—and the supporting cast through adept use of the telling descriptive phrase. The careful research and study that went into this book should enthrall fans of the classics, military history buffs and general readers. (Dec.)
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Top customer reviews
The Isle of Stone is the story of Antalcidas and Epitadas, Spartan soldiers and sons Damatria. Raped by a helot on her wedding day, Damatria is psychologically damaged and raises her two sons in markedly different ways, turning them into very different men. As adults, they find themselves trapped on a barren island, surrounded by their Athenian enemies and faced with starvation or death in battle. You couldn't ask for a more compelling setup.
The majority of The Isle of Stone is telling rather than showing. Nicastro seems to prefer--until the very end--narrating from a distant remove to bringing us into the nitty-gritty action of the story. Some passages that should be exciting are as bone-dry and analytical as Thucydides, who at least recognized that an audience has to be entertained if they're going to keep reading.
The biggest problem with the "telling" is that the two main characters, Antalcidas and Epitadas, are almost never shown fighting or doing anything noteworthy until the end of the book. When they go to battle, Nicastro shows us the action from a distance or the perspective of several minor characters, and only after the fact is it revealed that it was one of our heroes that did this or that. Some of the narration is so allusive or vague that important details slipped by undetected--for instance, until they were shown on the island, I had no idea, based on Nicastro's narration, that Antalcidas and Epitadas were among those stranded there. That's the kind of thing that needs to be made clear.
I've dwelt on the book's problems, but I must say that the end of the book was good, almost making up for the ill-paced stuff leading up to it. Here Nicastro does what he should have been doing all along--bring the reader into the action and showing Antalcidas and Epitadas under fire. The final battle scenes are gripping--on par with the repeatedly-mentioned Stephen Pressfield--and created a powerful sense of desperation and disappointment in me as I read. Especially moving, or perhaps upsetting, was the fate of Antalcidas's wife and child.
On a side note, it seems that Nicastro is trying to do a hit-job on Sparta, and that makes The Isle of Stone almost an anti-Gates of Fire or anti-300. He dwells on the cruelty and seemingly humanity-bankrupt aspects of Spartan culture. The result is just as realistic as Pressfield's work, though the two authors emphasize different sides of the same coin.
Other good parts of the novel included the characterization of Cleon, an actual historical figure from Athens and a notorious demagogue. Some of the banter between the Acharnian sailors is hilarious and the very personal nature of Athenian politics was well-drawn. And the specialty of this kind of fiction--the grueling Hellenic combat--is superb once Nicastro brings the reader into the action.
Overall, I want to give The Isle of the Stone the benefit of the doubt. Four stars seems too high and three too low a rating, but I'll compromise in favor of the parts of the novel--the first chapter and the final sixty pages or so--that worked so well and moved me so much.
Nicastro's novel encompasses all this and more, as he documents the way Antalcidas and his brother Epitadas are brought up, up to the battle on Sphacteria Island. An excellent read, to be recommended to High School and College students in their History classes.
I have to say the most interesting part of the book is Nicastro's portrayment of Spartan society, which is vastly different than Steven Pressfield's. Nicastro portrays Spartan life as completely free of positive emotions. Nobody laughs or loves (except the main character and that gets him nothing but hatred from his wife and daughter) everybody hates everybody else, and sex is seen as purely procreational. I have to say Pressfield's characters are more vivid because of their emotions and care for one another. I just didn't care when the various characters in this story died. The fact that this story is based on actual events is the only thing that made me even care that it was told at all.