REVIEW:  Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

REVIEW: Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Dear Mr. Pressfield,

gates-of-fire.gifI was wandering through Waldenbooks with a coupon in my hand, unable to find any books that I truly wanted to buy when the cover of “Gates of Fire” caught my eye. I had been meaning to try one of your books even before “300″ brought the ancient battle of Thermopylae to public attention, so I shrugged, thought “what the heck” and headed to the register with it clutched in my little hands. I wasn’t sure if this would be just a dry rendering of the battle or something else. It turned out to be “something else” and a riveting something at that. From several reviews I’ve read about it, it appears that lots of military men are praising the book and after finishing it, I can see why.

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….

Wow. The book is filled with intense scenes and not only the battlefield ones. This is one of those rare books that I would finish a section and have to blink a few times and shake my head to reorient myself to the fact that I wasn’t there, in the book anymore, but still back in my own little house, 2500 years later. I never felt that I was getting a dry, fact filled history lesson about which I’d be quizzed when it was finished. Instead the story and the characters came to life and I felt like I knew these people. I liked how you used the conceit of explaining all this to the Persian king as a way of showing the 21st C reader what went on in these mens’ heads and hearts. You show how money and riches meant nothing to them so the blandishments of the Persian king were worthless – they wanted to live as free men rather than as pampered and decorated lapdogs (I can almost hear Mel Gibson yelling freeeeeedom). And Spartans weren’t merely fighting for themselves but for all of Greece and its freedom. Well, maybe not for the helots they kept as slaves themselves.

I loved the (sometimes crude) humor — they’re soldiers in a time of war and you do or say whatever will get you through. The battle descriptions are graphic — very graphic but not much worse than what’s in the Iliad. And we are talking about a battle in which thousands died by sword, spear, arrow and other various messy methods. I also enjoyed how you wrote the book kinda, sorta in the style of Homer. It takes a little bit of getting used to and isn’t a fast read but it sounds great to the ear.

I also appreciated the inclusion of the women of Sparta — no shirkers themselves. They would be the first ones out shaming the men into doing their duty for their city (and that’s what it was all about for these people — the survival of the city first) if that was what was needed. I have to say I shed a tear when Leonidas confessed his criteria for selection of the 300. So much is said about Spartan men but the women kicked ass in a time and place where women were almost never seen and certainly never heard from. The first female Olympic champion was a Spartan princess called Kynisca, in 392 BC. She was also the first woman to become a champion horse trainer when her horses and chariot competed and won in the Ancient Olympic Games. Twice.

But the book is not merely about the immortal stand at Thermopylae but delves into the Spartan lifestyle, how they achieved such military cohesion, how they viewed themselves and the world, what made them willing to march off to a suicide mission — it’s one thing to find oneself in such a situation, it’s quite another to jockey to be chosen for it, to know days ahead of time that this is it, you’re heading to your death and to do it unflinchingly. It’s about what binds men together in a group — what makes them willing to die for others. I think Dienekes’ thoughtful analysis of fear and how the opposite of fear isn’t bravery but love, tells it all. Love of a messmate, a family, a city. A- for “Gates of Fire.”