I’ve just finished Steven Pressfield’s The Gates of Fire, and I’m torn about whether or not to recommend it to book groups. Pressfield is one of the best writers of military historical fiction working today. There’s no denying the author’s skill in presenting a well researched look at the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartan soldiers and a few scattered allies faced down the huge invading horde of the Persian Empire. It’s a heroic tale of men who knew they would die, but who put a serious dent in the ambitions of a much larger force and avoided being overrun for long enough to allow the rest of Greece to consolidate defenses.
Beyond all of the battle, this is an empathetic look at the Spartan culture, one of history’s most martial. All of the Spartan males were trained from a very young age in the arts of war, and no level of success or power excused them from military duties. Only after completing years of punishing training were some allowed to pursue other occupations, and even then only in shame. In battles, kings and military leaders led from the front, not the back. The Spartans are a brutal people, but Pressfield makes them empathetic.
The story is told from the perspective of the lone Spartan survivor, Xeones, who has been brought before Xerxes after the battle so that the Persian emperor can better understand how such a small force of men did so much damage to his invading force. Xeones was not born Spartan, and both Xerxes, and through him the reader, must try to understand why such a man would willingly lay down his life for his adopted culture.
It’s a good book, and one I recommend highly to fans of military historical fiction, ancient history, or action/adventure stories with meaty content. The philosophical content of the novel makes the book worthwhile for groups–there’s much more than plot and action here to work with in discussion.
My major caveat is that the violence in the novel, though realistic, is extremely graphic and might be too much for more sensitive readers.
I would hope that book groups who do take on The Gates of Fire give careful consideration to other sides of the issue. Pressfield clearly empathizes with the Spartan culture and he works hard to pass that empathy along to the reader. In this reader’s opinion, their culture’s emphasis on force and self-reliance is argued more effectively here than the side of government and law, and the Spartan heroes sometimes seem too universally devoted and skilled to be entirely real. But that’s why we discuss the book, isn’t it!