I think anyone who enjoyed the film The 300 or maybe even the remake of Clash of the Titans would enjoy this book. Certainly any reader who has a hankering for more things Spartan would like this book. Manfredi is at pains to honor original sources and as an archaeologist by trade, offers a wealth of rich detail and enough authentic description to make the reader feel as if they are in the midst of the action. The read is a lot of fun and reminds me more of a medieval romance, with its mysterious strangers that appear briefly and disappear, mystical prophesies that haunt the characters’ destinies and divine miracles and interventions than it does a historical novel.
Ironically, this is also wherein I find my two, albeit minor and personal, complaints. While I enjoyed Mandredi’s book quite a lot, he seemed to have trouble in deciding whether he wanted to write a fiction with mythological seasoning or a historical fiction that presents events as they might have been. This robbed me of completely abandoning myself to his storytelling. I personally do not feel both styles fit very well together. Either the story begins to sound too much like a fantasy to be historical or too much like the grit of history to be a fantasy. I think a book is more effective choosing one or the other. I would like to have seen him remove the supernatural suggestions and create a more believable possibility, such as in Pressfield’s Gates of Fire or Whyte’s The Skystone. To his credit, however, Mandredi holds off on any overt supernatural-ism until very late in the novel, it is a bit ‘bumpy’ at times and flirts dangerously with a deus ex machine or two. I have more to express on this topic, more definition to give it, but it is probably best presented in a separate blog entry.
Another minor quibble-point, though related to the above, and has to do with the language of the novel. As a translation, I am never quite sure how much of the author I am getting or how much of the translator. Character dialogue here is sometimes very dramatic, even epic, but then suddenly lapses back into informality in such a way as to be jarring or without natural rhythm. For me this is less than convincing as it disrupts dialogue euphony and pulls me out of the flow of the novel. For example:
“…I’d rather sleep in the shed because I’m afraid the wolves will be out tonight.”
“If that’s how it is,” nodded Kleidemos. “But wake me if you do hear the wolves; with my spear I can come to your aid.”
“Thank you, my guest,” said Basias…
I do not mind the tone, but it sounds odd when juxtaposed with the informal contractions. I feel it should be one or the other and if it is going to shift there should be a plausible reason for it. I couldn’t help but smile and even chuckle a bit–“…with my spear I can come to your aid.” I am not sure if Manfredi wanted me to laugh to myself at that moment or not. Now, in his “Author’s Note” afterward, Manfredi mentions, “I’ve respected the original sources as closely as possible, seeking even in the language to reproduce the mentality and manner of living.” Those original sources, he mentions “Herodotus” for example, can sound pretty Homeric as the ancient writers seemed keen to give their narratives that Homeric sound of authenticity their readers no doubt expected. I wonder if what is coming through here is a mixture of Manfredi’s attempt to sound a bit Homeric and the translator’s own choices.
As I said, it is a minor point, but as a wannabe writer presently working on my own admittedly poor skills in writing such, I find it very important to keep the reader engaged in the story and odd dialogue is as sure-fire a method for challenging and possibly losing that engagement as any I can think of.
Regardless, I recommend the book to history fans like myself as well as adventure fans or those looking for a fix of ancient rock-‘em-sock-‘em seasoned with a little romance. I plan to purchase and read Manfredi’s The Last Legion, which, by the way, was made into a rather poorly written movie of the same name not too long ago starring Colin Firth and one of my favorite actors Ben Kingsley. The comparison between the two novels and their perspective voices should be interesting. On the other hand, I guess if a really want to know, I should learn to read Italian!