I love a good historical novel though I'm leery of picking them up these days since so many disappoint. This one, I'm delighted to say, did not. In fact, although it had a few dry moments, it captured me as only the best fiction can, reeling me in until I found myself still reading as the clock approached 2 A.M., unwilling to put it aside until I'd reached the final page. What better testament of a book's quality is there than that?
In some ways I liked Nicastro's new novel even better than Pressfield's Gates of Fire which is a long time favorite of mine. Nicastro handled the Greeks more tellingly and to better effect, I think, than Pressfield did (though it's a long time since I read Gates). More, while I found myself liking Nicastro's Spartans a good deal less than I had Pressfield's, no doubt because Nicastro removed the romantic gloss one finds over everything in the Pressfield book, I still became fascinated by, and oddly attracted to, the personas of the main characters including Antalcidas, the spurned and wounded son, and Damatria his even more deeply damaged mother.
One generation, Nicastro shows us, passes its pain to the next, giving us these Spartans in all their proto-fascist harshness as they torment and dominate the Helots who serve them. But we also see, in stark terms, just how this hard-edged society which the Spartans have built themselves wears down and destroys its own leading adherents no less than the enslaved Helots who live in fear beneath them.
The battle scenes weren't as glorious as Pressfield does them but the horror and futility of it all is so much clearer. Nor do the Athenians come off much better. All are human beings in utterly human circumstances, doing what must be done to get by. Some are fools and some are wise but even the wise are only men, ruled by circumstances and events. There were a few things I didn't care for: the author uses an ominscient narrator's voice, redolent of 19th century writing which jars a bit when it manifests. But, frankly, Nicastro makes it work anyway and it's not ultimately distracting. I also wasn't keen on Nicastro's decision to jump about in telling his tale, from one point of view to another, from the Laconian Valley of the Peloponnesians to Athens and back again. But he made that work, too.
In sum he surmounted the obstacles he set for himself, like the Spartans surmount the jagged rocks of Sphacteria where they are ultimately trapped by the Athenian general Demosthenes. I especially liked the book's end which gives us no heroic posturing, no larger than life champions surpassing all others, but only men and women, trapped in their own worlds, unable to free themselves and reduced, at last, to accepting what life has cast up from the sea beyond.
Nicastro makes them all live again in the pain they endure and, uncomprehendingly, inflict on those around them. In so doing he has restored the flesh of belief to the bones of the ancient world. I'm glad I took a chance on this one.
Stuart W. Mirsky author of The King of Vinland's Saga
P.S. Here are some other quite decent works of historical fiction for those with a fairly broad range of interest:
With Fire and Sword - Polish knights errant battle to save the kingdom in the face of a rising by the Cossacks
Shogun - English navigator shipwrecked with his crew on the coast of medieval Japan with no way to make it home again
Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae - Spartan heroes battle to save their homeland in the face of an epic Persian invasion
Musashi: An Epic Novel of the Samurai Era - Itinerant Japanese peasant soldier struggles to remake himself as a master samurai and strategist