Customer Review

10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pressfield nearly back on form, 24 Feb 2005
This review is from: Alexander: The Virtues Of War (Hardcover)
(I've had other reviews where the wrong number of stars has shown - so for the record I'm giving this one 4 stars.)
In 'Alexander: Virtues of War', Steven Pressfield adopts the voice of Alexander the Great, to recount the history of his conquests. Alexander's listener is Itanes, his brother-in-law, the son of a Bactrian nobleman who has recently joined the corps of Royal Pages. Throughout the book we are subjected to detailed descriptions of all of Alexander's major battles, sieges and skirmishes.
Pressfield's first novel about Ancient Greece, 'Gates of Fire', remains one of the best historical novels I have read. Gritty with realism, and evocative of 5th century Greece. I was hugely disappointed with the follow-up, 'Tides of War', and somewhat mollified by 'Last of the Amazons', which I felt was a return nearly to the form of the first. I am undecided about 'Virtues of War'.
On the one hand, the battles are described in detail, although less viscerally than in Pressfield's previous novels. Where 'Gates of Fire' made you wince, 'Virtues of War' makes you appreciate the tactics. Pressfield describes the 'fog of war' extremely well, and you really get a sense of the chaos of battle; but you just don't get down and dirty in the thick of the blood and dust, and I never felt truly engaged emotionally. (Having said that, his description of the battle of Gaugamela goes a long way to rectifying this, but I still never got the emotional connection.) When I compare it with the fighting in 'Gates of Fire', 'Virtues of War' does, I'm afraid, pale in comparison.
I've focused purely on the battles so far, which leads me to one of the book's problems: it's all battles. There are short sequences that put the warfare into context, so one can follow the campaign and a little of the non-military aspects of Alexander's reign; but it is, to all intents and purposes, a purely military book. There's nothing particularly wrong with that - and if you are interested in the military aspect then it's fantastic - but it did leave me wanting much more. The characters, particularly Alexander, could have been rounded out if the focus hadn't been purely on the military.
Still, Pressfield writes about war very well, and he certainly plays to his strengths here.
Unfortunately, I never really felt I was in the ancient world, and this, to me, was the biggest disappointment. Pressfield explains in his preface that he has chosen to use some anachronistic words (such as 'knight') to help evoke the Macedonian zeitgeist, and he is humble in his apology to the purists (like me, I suppose) for whom it jars. I can see where he's coming from, but I don't think that using medieval terms rather than ancient ones really helps, and it serves to remove us too far from the ancient mindset. Overall, the book ends up reading like a set of General Orders from the Peninsular War - I kept bringing Wellington to mind rather than Alexander.
For all my criticisms, it's an engaging book, and if you want to learn more about the details of Alexander's wars, then it's a good read. I would advise readers to look for other books to read alongside this novel, however - JFC Fuller's 'The Generalship of Alexander the Great', for example, or the titles in the Osprey 'Men-at-arms' series.
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