I have read many great books in my time, in many genres. Trying to define "great" is not as easy as it sounds, since many of the books I feel are truly great are quite different -- in content, in presentation, in style, in delivery, in feel. I'd like to think my ability to recognize and appreciate great writing transcends my own unique set of preferences... meaning, I may not like the story or the subject matter, but that should take nothing away from my ability to acknowledge the author's skill set. Contrariwise, I'd also like to think that just because I connect with the story/subject matter as thoroughly as a person can possibly do such, it still wouldn't color my ability to objectively comment on the writing, the story, the author's ability to navigate the page and/or the reader's heart.
I'll summarize this review now, for those that lack the patience to wade through this post. This book is the best book I've ever read, period, for many reasons, which I will attempt to elucidate upon in the following paragraphs. This is technically the third time I've read this book, and it is an example I can, with clear conscience and without exaggeration, point to as that rare book that truly does improve with subsequent readings.
Gates of Fire, by the amazing Steven Pressfield, is a dramatic re-telling of the Spartan stand against the Persian invaders of King Xerxes in the Battle of Thermopylae in about 480 BC. Spartan King Leonidas, along with 300 hand-picked Spartan warriors and their squires and helots, were joined by a mix of Greek warriors from different surrounding regions, coming together to try and plug the narrow mountain pass called Thermopylae (aka, The Hot Gates or Gates of Fire), which was the only road Xerxes could use to move his armies into Greece, to conquer and enslave the country (as he had everywhere else he went).
At this point, if you could do me a favor and drive all thought of the 2006 comic-book movie "300" from your mind, it would help. Though this book tells the same basic tale, the hyper-stylized, heavily-embellished and outright odd movie should not color your willingness to pick up this book. Different beast altogether. I placed a screenshot from the movie at the top of this post only because I could not find a better shot of a Spartan phalanx.
In the book, a single man, named Xeones, has barely survived the famous last stand, being pulled from the rubble in the immediate aftermath, with grievous wounds. King Xerxes immediately orders his best surgeons to tend to him, in the hopes that this man could survive and satiate the King's thirst for knowledge about these men who withstood his innumerable forces for three full days, specifically this core of Spartans that proved so impossibly resilient. Who were these warriors? The Persian King, who had witnessed the entirety of the three-day battle from a safe nearby vantage point, initially supremely confident that his forces would roll through the pass without much problem, was stunned to see his forces, including some of his very best, decimated by such a small force, to the tune of 20,000+ men. When all was said and done, the narrow mountain pass was a hellish slaughterhouse, the rock-hard earth transformed into knee-deep mud by the spilled blood.
Xeones, himself a helot (slave, if you will) to a Spartan captain named Dienekes, survives long enough to relay to King Xerxes' chief historian the tale of the 300 and their suicide mission. This book is that story, as though we have picked up that historian's record from an ancient archive and sat down to give it a reading.
The book works first as a character story. Xeones is merely the first of many people the reader meets, and, if the reader is anything like me, will form a deep bond with - a bond made more bittersweet by the fact that the final outcome for most of these characters is known to us before we even crack the book open. You know these 300 will die - it hangs over your head each page, like a guillotine blade. If the characters were shallow and/or poorly drawn, their sacrifice would mean little. But because they were crafted with such expert care, their imminent demise manifests itself, as the book progresses, in an increasing tightness in the belly. This is especially nefarious, since the book is so hard to put down. You are hooked and drawn forward.
The history lesson goes beyond merely the in-depth study of the Spartan lifestyle and training. It drives home, albeit with subtlety, the fact that the ultimate triumph of Greece over the invading Persian King led directly to the birth of democracy, which has direct implications on our (U.S.) society today, for obvious reasons.
The book works as an action-adventure. The inexorable pace of the tale is constant, even with the frequent trips back in time to Xeones' childhood, and the road he took in his early years that led him to Lakedaemon, into the often-brutal service of the Spartan army. It builds like a juggernaut, until all you can do is grab hold of the book covers and hold on for dear life, clinging to the impossible hope that at least one of these incredible characters will somehow miraculously survive, knowing that they won't. The ridiculously vivid battle descriptions are a wonder to read, especially seeing the way the Spartans trained (and why), and how it translated onto the battlefield. But the interactions between the characters as they move towards their destinies are equally captivating and, surprisingly, in many places, very funny.
The book works as literature. To me, this book is art. The vocabulary and sentence construction in this book represent the best of my experience. To say Pressfield "has a way with words" would be to so understate as to be insulting. His sentences are a joy to eat - so much so that one could pull entire monologues out of his pages, as is, and perform them onstage, to great effect. In fact, I believe an example is in order.
King Leonidas stands before his assembled 300 Spartans as they are about to depart on the hard march to Thermopylae. Assembled around them are not only the rest of the Spartan forces, wishing with everything inside them that they could have been selected to go as well, but also the wives, families, the whole town, gathered to see these heroes off, knowing they will never return. King Leonidas addresses these words to his men.
Death stands close upon us now. Can you feel him, brothers? I do. I am human and I fear him. My eyes cast about for a sight to fortify the heart for that moment when I come to look him in the face.
Shall I tell you where I find this strength, Friends? In the eyes of our sons in scarlet before us, yes. And in the countenance of their comrades who will follow in battles to come. But more than that, my heart finds courage from these, our women, who watch in tearless silence as we go.
How many times have these twain stood here in the chill shade of Parnon and watched those they love march out to war? Pyrrho, you have seen grandfathers and father troop away down the Aphetaid, never to return. Alkemene, your eyes have held themselves unweeping as husband and brothers have departed to their deaths. Now here you stand again, with no few others who have borne as much and more, watching sons and grandsons march off to hell.
Men’s pain is lightly borne and swiftly over. Our wounds are of the flesh, which is nothing; women’s is of the heart – sorrow unending, far more bitter to bear. Learn from them, brothers, from their pain in childbirth which the gods have ordained immutable. Bear witness to that lesson they teach: nothing good in life comes but at a price. Sweetest of all is liberty. This we have chosen and this we pay for. We have embraced the laws of Lykurgus, and they are stern laws. They have schooled us to scorn the life of leisure, which this rich land of ours would bestow upon us if we wished, and instead to enroll ourselves in the academy of discipline and sacrifice. Guided by these laws, our fathers for twenty generations have breathed the blessed air of freedom and have paid the bill in full when it was presented. We, their sons, can do no less.
In six hundred years, so the poets say, no Spartan woman has beheld the smoke of the enemy’s fires. By Zeus and Eros, by Athena Protectress and Artemis Upright, by the Muses and all the gods and heroes who defend Lakedaemon and by the blood of my own flesh, I swear that our wives and daughters, our sisters and mothers, will not behold those fires now.
How I would love to perform that piece onstage. And it is one of a dozen or more examples I could insert here.
Lastly, the book works as an unshakable source of inspiration. I cannot help but wonder, as I tasted the final words of this book (for this third reading), whether I have ever had - or will ever have - even a fraction of the steel within me required to stand among such men. And I don't mean the Spartans - I mean all men of this caliber, even today. Men willing to sacrifice everything for what they believe in. Men willing to endure brutal training, to learn hard lessons, to take life's best shot to the teeth, to endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ (if I may wax Biblical for a moment). How can I find and apply this strength, this dedication, this resolve to my own situation? To my own walk with God? To what I believe in and hold most valuable? At the risk of being corny, this book makes me want to be a man, in every sense of that word. The camaraderie on display here is something I wish I could experience, and know I likely never will.
Even though I have gone on at such lengths, espousing a few of what I feel are many legitimate virtues of this book and its author, I must qualify (and risk cheapening) it with this question: Will this book strike you the same way? Will it captivate and decimate, inspire and entertain you the same way? I have no clue. But as for me, it has solidified its place at the top of my Best Books list, and I don't anticipate it being moved for a very long time.
Summary: 5/5 The language and writing alone make this a book worth reading. If the subject matter connects with you as it does for me, you will be exponentially rewarded. My only regret is that I will never again be able to read this book for the first time.