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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.”

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

20 Comments

  1. Angelle
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 04:33:33

    Jayne,

    Steven Pressfield also wrote about other famous wars and/or legends such as the Amazons. He’s one of the best historical writers I know of. I really liked his book on Alexander the Great as well.

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  2. Jennifer McKenzie
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 06:05:51

    Oh Wow!!! I’ll have to check him out! I love my history and to find someone who can make it come alive is always a challenge.
    Thanks for the review, Jayne.

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  3. Jayne
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 06:34:32

    Angelle, I glanced at some of his other books when I was looking at reviews of “Gates of Fire” and all of them seemed to have lots of fans. I will definitely be checking them out.

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  4. Angelle
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 07:47:02

    Jayne,

    I must proofread better. And get more sleep and coffee. :)

    I think you’ll love his other works.

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  5. Ann Bruce
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 08:24:57

    Okay, I placed this book on my most current Amazon order.

    Question, though: Does he include the Spartans’ allies? It wasn’t really just the 300 Spartans against all those Persians. I believe they had about another 4000-5000 allies with them. Odds were still overwhelming, I know.

    On a side note, my favourite Belgian truffles are from Leonidas.

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  6. Marg
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 08:52:18

    I have had this on my TBR pile for ages! Thanks for the review.

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  7. Jayne
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 10:04:06

    Ann, yes he did include the other allies. There’s a last day peptalk from Leonidas in which he exhorts the men left to hold out another day to give the other allies who’d left a chance to make it home.

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  8. TeddyPig
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 12:15:30

    Another good old “Sparta without the Queer” book?

    I’ll pass. I thought 300 was hysterical. So much man titty, with no mention of man love.

    I like my history without the antiseptic smell. Especially when the authors blatantly cherry pick out the parts they do not like.

    What next the Glory of The South during the Civil War without any mention of such nasty things as slavery?

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  9. TeddyPig
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 12:20:38

    I know, I know

    I am being a dick.

    ReplyReply

  10. Jayne
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 14:29:56

    Actually TP it’s a very good point and one that puzzled me throughout the book. I mean so much is said about how homosexuality was a normal part of the Spartan lifestyle yet it’s not mentioned at all. Well, thinking back there was one ‘so brief as to almost not be memorable’ mention made after a battle years prior to Thermopylae. Something to the effect of after a battle men would search the dead for relatives, friends or a lover.

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  11. teddypig
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 15:37:53

    I just find it stunning that even this day and age we cannot handle seeing a homosexual warrior culture that codified homosexuality as a norm to the extent newlywed young women shaved their heads to sexually entice the men.
    i understand the author can write what he wants but he should shut the hell up about research and accuracy when cropping out 2/3 of the picture.

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  12. Ayalyn
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 21:00:03

    teddypig

    So these homosexual warrior men were not bi-sexual, just homosexual?

    ReplyReply

  13. TeddyPig
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 22:06:49

    Ayalyn,

    I have no clue how they made it work but there is a ton of historical documentation about this time period available the most notable references point to the fact this is a culture that was dominated by Gay Men.

    In fact I have been reading about them since the 1970′s because just about every Literary Gay Writer with any historical knowledge has discussed The Sacred Band of Thebes or Sparta in their writing. It was THE THING for the longest time.

    I do not represent myself as a expert on Spartan culture but after watching how Native Americans get sorta upset about Tonto and The Long Ranger… Would you go waltzing carefree into writing about this time period without doing your homework? I honestly think these “John Wayne was a god” war glorifying idiots sure are and for the buck.

    Come on, suddenly Spartan history is fascinating?

    I mean 300 had great man titty but it also failed to note that this culture was dominated by Gay Warriors. If you will note the only comments about gay men in the whole fucking movie are negative. Boy Lovers!

    I am all for loving the 7/11 nachos just realize that the cheese sauce is man made and highly fake.

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  14. TeddyPig
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 22:27:40

    As a thought…

    This culture paired up younger and older warriors to train become lovers and go into battle.
    What type of romantic tragedy would there be in watching your lover fight or even die in battle right next to you?

    What would women be like in this culture when the men they intend to marry have been inundated from youth with the whole gay sex thing?

    That would be some interesting reading for me.

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  15. Mrs Giggles
    Sep 15, 2007 @ 22:47:57

    The Japanese culture of old had a similar homosexual aspect in many of their mentor-apprentice relationships. It was common back then for someone in a teacher/mentor position to have a sexual relationship with the male apprentice. This is common among the samurais as well as sumo wrestlers in the past. The great (and infamous) Oda Nobunaga was said to have a sexual relationship with his “exceptionally” beautiful charge Mori Ranmaru, although there is no historical evidence to back up this allegation. Then again, many things about Oda Nobunaga are hearsay and myths as much as historical truth.

    PS, about sumo wrestlers: I also read somewhere that apprentices of those big sumo wrestlers are also expected to clean up their mentor/master’s rear end after the mentor/master has answered the call of nature. Anyone knows if this is true?

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  16. TeddyPig
    Sep 16, 2007 @ 00:07:55

    I also read somewhere that apprentices of those big sumo wrestlers are also expected to clean up their mentor/master's rear end after the mentor/master has answered the call of nature. Anyone knows if this is true?

    Oh my!

    That is so not pretty.

    But… yeah I have heard of this Samurai thing…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shudo

    Just not as much as the Spartan/Greek homosexuality.

    Oh, and remember always when reading this stuff.
    In most of these cases when they say “boy” they mean someone old enough to go into battle. That means, in their culture, someone old enough to die for their country.

    I hate all the pedophile garbage that gets thrown into these discussions when they are talking about young men.

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  17. Heather (errantdreams)
    Sep 16, 2007 @ 01:58:33

    Wow. Well, you’ve convinced me. Onto the massively growing wishlist!

    ReplyReply

  18. Jayne
    Sep 16, 2007 @ 05:32:44

    I found this website page devoted to ancient Greek military information. Seems to me this period is tailor made for the erotic authors specializing in M/M romances.

    ReplyReply

  19. Ayalyn
    Sep 16, 2007 @ 10:46:58

    Teddypig
    RE: #13

    Thanks for the reply. I’m NOT an expert, I was just wondering how they could all just be strictly homosexual. It just seems to me that most men of that time would want to have sons. They would have to have sex with women or they would never expand their civilization. I think bi-sexuality was more likely.
    I could be wrong, hey.. maybe that is why they only had 300 able to do battle against the Persians.

    RE: #14
    “What would women be like in this culture when the men they intend to marry have been inundated from youth with the whole gay sex thing?”

    As long as I could watch!
    ;)

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  20. Shark
    Mar 29, 2010 @ 00:19:46

    King Lycurgus outlawed forced homosexuality a few hundred years before this battle. It was one of the things that seperated spart from the athenians.
    Even then it was only legal until a man married a woman. This societies main mission was to produce warriors . Gay love does not produce that.

    ReplyReply

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