Gates of Fire is right up there with the handful of Best Novels I’ve Ever Read. Why? I’ll try and give you my reasons.
Gates of Fire is the story of the 300 and their stand at the Hot Gates against the massed multi-nation army of the God-King Xerxes. Sound familiar? Here’s the thing (and I never thought I would say this) – it is familiar, unfortunately, because of Zack Snyder’s 300. Unfortunately? Yep, you read that right.
I say unfortunately because 300 was so awesome when it came out that most people haven’t even heard of Gates of Fire, never mind actually read the book. And that’s a damn shame.
Here’s why I love the book:
The way Steven approached the story: Gates of Fire is told from the perspective of a historian, part of Xerxes’ massive train of humanity that travelled to Hellas, who is recording the story of a survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae. A survivor? Well, yes, a survivor. (Read the book – it does make sense; the chance of there being a survivor is possible, as I’m sure you’ll agree once you’ve read the book) The tale unfolds as if we are reading an ancient document, a scroll, upon which the words of this survivor were recorded by the historian.
This allows for certain things – one is that the type of language used in the book is formal and intentional; after all, a historian will be more highly educated than a Spartan Peer and it will be practically impossible for the historian to write in any other way. And as the historian is relating what the survivor related to him he naturally would have corrected the survivor’s grammar, etc. Steven brought in the humour and tension and humanity through the survivor’s words and made it seem as if the historian just wasn’t able to record the words in any other way. It’s extremely difficult for me to try and explain this, (as you’ve probably noticed with my rambling) but the best way to describe it is as if the historian got caught up in the tale, as if he began living the tale (as all good story-tellers manage to do with those listening to or reading the story), and so his own perceptions of the Spartans and the battle (didn’t change) became more informed.
The second thing is that Steven doesn’t focus the story on the Spartans. Sure, the novel is about their absolutelybloodyepic battle against the massed nations of the Persian Empire, but it doesn’t focus on them. Instead, Steven uses someone who isn’t a Spartan to tell the tale, so that as this person get’s to know and understand the Spartans, so does the reader. Steven also jumps around in the timeline -he’s allowed to, since everyone knows how the Battle of Thermopylae ended- and gives us excellent snapshots of the Spartan way of life, the Spartan people, and the characters we know from 300, including (and I mention these because you’ll remember them) Leonidas and Dienekes (he’s the man who made the quip about ‘fighting in the shade’ in 300).
And no scene is wasted – everything you read, from the early life of the narrator, the insane but very important Spartan training regimen, the philosophical debates and previous battles, is important. Everything sets you up for the climactic, indeed, fuckin’ apocalyptic, Battle of Thermopylae.
Steven doesn’t just do his research; he does his research: It’s completely and utterly apparent. I learned more about warfare and the psychology of warfare and warriors than I did from any other source. This isn’t just the retelling of an ancient last stand against impossible odds – in Gates of Fire you’ll learn how the city states that made up ancient Greece operated, just how and why the Helot’s were part of Spartan society, just what the agoge (also mentioned in 300) was and how it prepared a Spartan warrior, you’ll learn about the gear they may have used and how they used it, parables they told, you’ll learn what kind of food they ate, what they believed in, etc There’s so much in this novel that it’s one of those books that requires a re-read every couple of years, and I completely understand why the Battle of Thermopylae is such an important event in the history of humanity (not even to mention the importance that Gates of Fire itself has attained: Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico and the Virginia Military Institute – taken from this article.)
The battle(s) are INCREDIBLE: There is a scene, early on in the novel, where the Spartans are engaged in a battle (not Thermopylae), and at one point the warriors, after having formed their lines and hoisted their shields into position, bring their spears into position; that scene gave me such an attack of gooseflesh that just thinking about it brings the gooseflesh back. And that’s only one scene, and not even the actual Battle, yet. (by the way, the only author that, in my opinion, has managed to come close to elliciting such a reaction from me is Paul Kearney in The Ten Thousand.) Everything you’ve ever thought you might experience in a battle -the massive tension, the fear, the single-mindedness, the brutality, the camaraderie, and every single blow, is in this novel. If I only ever read battles as written by Steven Pressfield, I’ll die a happy man.
The characterization is achingly brilliant: whether it’s Persians, Spartans (husbands, wives, warriors) Helots, Acadians, Thebans, Thesbians, etc Steven brings a clear and ringing humanity to the large cast that populate this novel. Some of the best scenes involve (and here I’ll surprise you) two women of Sparta – these scenes served to really bring that gut-punch to the novel, that sense of breathlessness that you have after witnessing something indelible and incredible. You see, there’s so much focus on the warriors that one doesn’t stop to think about their wives (and in case you didn’t know, the 300 Peers who fought and died at Thermopylae were chosen because, basically, they had wives and sons to carry on their name, and to become the warriors that Sparta would need in the face of the Persian onslaught). What must that do to you, knowing, as you watch your husband or oldest son or bother, marching off to stand against an invader but to stand for you? Gates of Fire gives you the fodder to answer that question for yourself.
I s’pose I could go on and on, but I don’t want to. Hopefully I’ve given you reason enough to order this novel or to buy it as soon as your eyes fall upon it. This is a book that deserves to be read, and re-read, and re-read. One of the biggest reasons? You know what happens, and it still breaks you.
Absolutely, incredibly enthralling, and definitely one of my all-time favourite novels.
10 / 10
For a taste of what you can expect, read this excerpt of Gates of Fire. It’s a scene from the agoge, and the least of what it explains is ‘fucking the tree’.
And if you still don’t think this is worth a read, check out Adam Whitehead’s review on The Wertzone.
P.S. If anyone knows Ridley Scott, pass on a copy of the novel to him, would you? And then force him to read it, even if he stops making movies for the time it takes him to read it. After the excellence that was / remains Black Hawk Down, Ridley is the absolute *perfect* man to make Gates of Fire into the best fuckin’ movie *ever*.