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Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire is a novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a smaller force of Greek soldiers sought to delay the advance of a large Persian invasion into Greece at a narrow pass.
Many readers will be familiar with the broad strokes of the story of the battle, but this novel delves deep into the military culture of Sparta, and gives a look at some of the training they went through. The narrator is a helot, a slave of the Spartans, and has his own conflicted feelings about Spartan society. Furthermore, he was wounded in the battle, but saved by the Persians and is now recounting his tale to a Persian scribe.
This grunt’s-eye-view of the battle and of Spartan society creates an engaging tale.
What Makes it Epic Grit:
- Adventure and Wonder: There’s ancient armies doing battle with ancient weapons. It’s a sword and sandals classic.
- Believable Characters: Other stories of Thermopylae tend to have cartoonish and melodramatic depictions of bravado. This work paints the bravado as part of a realistic military culture.
- Real Consequences: If you’ve heard of the Battle of Thermopylae, you probably know how it turned out.
- Epic in Scope: An invading Persian army wants to conquer all of Greece.
- Subverts “Good versus Evil” Tropes: As with many war stories, the enemy isn’t portrayed as evil–just an overwhelming force of men that will do harm to you and your loved ones. They are a great adversary rather than a great evil.
- Different Perspectives: Instead of delivering the story from the POV of a Spartan warrior, this tale is told by a helot as recounted to a Persian scribe.
This classic gritty novel of ancient historical battle is as good as it gets.