I can't even say how long this novel has been sitting in my to read pile at this point. I like ancient history, and I know quite a few people who enjoyed this so I guess I always felt like it was something I should read but never quite felt like I was in the mood for it. Basically, this year I'm trying to read at least a few novels that have been sitting around forever, so I decided to take a stab at Gates of Fire.
This is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae as told by Xeones, a Spartan squire, to Xerxes, the Persian ruler, and recorded by his historian. Xeones's words make up the majority of the narrative, but the historian has a few parts, which are italicized, adding background information as well as telling of the events that occurred during the rest of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. After the Battle of Thermopylae, Xeones is discovered, clinging to life (though he wants nothing more than to join his comrades in arms in death but someone must tell their tale), and Xerxes orders for his story to be transcribed in order to gain some type of understanding of what types of men withstood his forces for such a long time against insurmountable odds. While Xeones explains that he is a simple man, merely a squire, and not one of the three hundred peers and nobles that the Spartans sent, he defers and tells his story for the record.
Xeones is not from Sparta, coming originally from Astakos, but he has not entered into Spartan life in the normal manner of an outsider, either. The Spartans did not conquer his people in war, and turn him into a slave; instead, Xeo's home is attacked by the Argives when he is young, and he decides then that he wants to join the Spartans in whatever manner possible because they "make men." After hiding in the forests for two years with his cousin Diomache and his family's teacher and slave, Xeo makes his way to Sparta. Eventually gaining the position of squire, he comes into contact with the great men and warriors that will make up the three hundred peers. As Xeones reflects back on his life, attempting to explain exactly how Spartan society creates the warriors it does, he jumps back and forth in the timeline quite a bit, being reminded of tangents as he remembers various anecdotes and stories. Usually, I don't mind jumping around in narratives but since it took me a while to get used to the rhythm of the plot, the names and places, it did hinder me in getting as absorbed into the story as I normally would have. While Xeo becomes friends/ starts out as a squire for Alexandros, eventually Alexandros's mentor Dienekes takes Xeones as his second squire, placing his squire Suicide as Alexandros's because a young man needs an older wiser man to keep him out of trouble. Xeones tells of a variety of different Spartans, and Dienekes and his wife were the ones that were of the most interest to me. A large portion of the narrative is also dedicated Alexandros, and I can see where the author was going with the character - a type of underdog, a man that is almost too honest, kind hearted and earnest for his warrior society yet still tries to fight honorably, but something about the character just didn't interest me at all. I believe that was the other reason for my initial difficulty with enjoying the story - too much of the beginning is about Alexandros.
In fact when Xeones discusses some of the initial training for the teenaged boys, he discusses one teacher in particular that had it out for Alexandros - it basically sounds like every coming of age story ever with the bully and everything. Still, once the novel shifts to the events of Thermopylae, it is impossible not to get wrapped up in the flow of the battle, the heroics of the characters and the tight brotherhood they form in the face of adversity. While the first few chapters certainly held my interest, I wasn't quite sure how I'd feel about the novel overall, especially during the training scenes. However, I ended up enjoying it quite a lot, even if it wasn't quite a style I usually read that much. I always feel like I should be more interested in military history and the tactics involved, but usually I'm happy reading about the socio-political events surrounding the war rather than stories of the battles themselves. I can't say I'm going to rush out to read more novels like this, but I'm glad I have finally tackled this.