I’m exploring a new historical fiction novel today. I’ve only ever read Iggulden’s fantasy works before so I’m really looking forward to seeing how the different genre is tackled. If you’re prepared to go back to Ancient Greece, then keep scrolling for my Gates of Athens review.
Publisher: Penguin UK/Michael Joseph | Date: 2020 | Genre: Historical fiction
Plot: 490 B.C.
Two great empires are about to go to war . . .
The momentous struggle between Athens and Sparta as rival powers and political systems will last for twenty-seven years (431 to 404 BC).
It will end in the fall of a dynasty.
Filled with cunning political scheming and astonishing military prowess, invasions and treacheries, plagues and slaughters, passion and power, Conn Iggulden brings to life one of the most thrilling chapters of the ancient world.
I received Gates of Athens from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
The Gates of Athens review
I was introduced to Conn Iggulden through his fantasy fiction and subsequently discovered he also writes historical fiction. I’m eager to try his other work and The Gates of Athens seemed a suitable place to begin.
The setting is interesting, but it’s the characters who engage you from the start. We’re first introduced to Xanthippus as he prepares to march to the defence of his home and family. From there, we follow his journey through exile and battle. Xanthippus is a steady man: he doesn’t get overexcited, or overestimate his position. He’s solid, and while likeable, it took a while to warm to him.
Xanthippus is the main character but the narration is split across several. Themistocles is ambitious; more than anyone knows. His motives are initially blurry and it feels he could be a villain of the story. But he proves his worth and shows his dedication to his home, even if not his friends. Iggulden provides additional information through snapshots from lesser characters, but in an expositional manner rather than character development.
Other men dreamed, only to see their dreams made dust. Xerxes was not of their kind. His hopes became bridges. His dreams became vengeance, an arrow sent from his father’s bow that had been in flight for a long time.The Gates of Athens, Conn Iggulden
We also follow the Persians as they prepare to make war. Their king is a self-centred, selfish man, believing in his own divinity and adamant everything will go as he dictates. You want him fail just to picture the look on his face. Less page time means you don’t connect with these characters in the same way, making it easy to manipulate the reader’s loyalty.
Pacing and themes
The Gates of Athens is a slow-paced novel, set over several years as the characters deal with threats to their beloved Athens: both internal and external. The book opens with the key players marching off to battle, then the pacing slows and it introduces a political element. There’s a lot of time dedicated to understanding how Athens was governed which, while interesting, made the pacing feel it was dragging for a while. Connecting with the characters was also harder when they aren’t given the chance to develop: you want to know how they’d react.
Although the first part wasn’t as engaging as I would have wanted, the second half more than makes up for that. Once everyone gets into position and they realise the threat, the pacing and the tension increase ten-fold. It’s a race against time to be ready to meet the Persians and it sweeps the reader up in that momentum, eagerly page-turning to see if they will make it.
The battles are clearly written, despite following sea warfare. You root for your favourites; you fear for them; and you’re relieved if they survive. You know you’re immersed when the bittersweet ending hits you on an emotional level and you’re ready for the sequel to find out what happens to these characters next.
An enjoyable and engaging book. The fast-paced start twisted my expectations, but understanding the slower pace makes this a strong read that draws you into the world of Ancient Greece.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in historical fiction or this time period. I’ll certainly be continuing this adventure.
Is this an era you’ve read before? Would you be interested in doing so?
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