Monday, October 11, 2010

[Novel Review] Tides of War

A novel by Steven Pressfield

After how much I enjoyed Pressfield's The Gates of Fire, I was very much looking forward to Tides of War. It wasn't a sequel in any way, but did take place chronologically after that first novel's events, and in some of the same lands. Sadly, I didn't find it nearly as gripping. Granted, it was a much different book, but I was disappointed that it didn't grab me and pull me through to the end the way Gates of Fire did. In fact, it took me quite a while to read, which is always an indicator that I'm bored.

The subject matter was surely part of the issue. Gates of Fire was the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, one of the most storied tales of heroic combat and patriotic self-sacrifice in the history of mankind. Just a few thousand Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan homoioi, held off the hordes of Persian invaders for days, allowing the rest of the Greek forces to be properly mobilized and coinciding with a battle at sea where the Greek triremes soundly defeated the Persians. Thus ended Persia's final real attempt to invade Greece. The story of so few fighting against so many, plus their rigorous training and rigid society, made for an incredible tale. It was very tight, very focused, and revolved not just around certain central characters, but ultimately one key event - Thermopylae.

Tides of War was much more broad in scope, and suffered for it. It was, at its core, the tale of Athenian warrior, leader, diplomat and statesman Alcebiades. Alcebiades may well have been one of the most interesting men in the history of western civilization, so it stands to reason that a book about his exploits - which include battles, betrayals, and the balance of nations - would make for outstanding historical fiction. Certainly we know that Pressfield is capable of writing great historical fiction, so there was every reason for him, and me, to believe that Tides of War ought to have been every bit as good as The Gates of Fire.

I think the scope of the work was its undoing, however. Instead of drawing the reader along to the ultimate confrontation between the noble Spartan warriors and the vile Persian invaders, Tides of War vacillated back and forth much the way Alcibiades did, himself. To begin with, it had an odd narration - a man telling his grandson a story as told to him by a man who was peripherally involved in the events that unfolded around Alcibiades. Go ahead and read that again if you must, I'll wait. I admit, I often found myself confused about who was telling the story to whom, but that wasn't the crux of my problem with the novel.

I think it was the many, many years involved, and the fact that none of the battles, none of the seemingly-major events, were pivotal to the story. They all added up to the tragic tale of an amazingly charismatic figure who rose and fell from grace and power with dizzying rapidity, only to again rise each time in some new and even more brazen fashion. But it was always seen at a distance. Often, Alcibiades was influencing the action of the story, but from such a distance that you didn't necessarily even see him. It resulted in pockets of strong dramatic tension interspersed between long periods of the narrator's sometimes tedious daily life.

To briefly summarize the basic premise of the novel, it takes place decades after the defeat of the Persians at Thermopylae. Athens and Sparta have risen to preeminence among the Greek city-states, and nearly all of the others have lined up behind one of the two powerhouses. Athens controls the sea with its powerful navy, and has built an empire around the edges of the Aegean Sea. Sparta is a major land power, but with little desire to form its own kingdom. Still, the two butt heads over issues of security and governance, resulting in the Peloponnesian War. Alcebiades initially accounts well for himself in battle, becoming recognized as the de facto leader of Athens' forces whenever he takes the field, even when he doesn't have the official title to go along with it. He spurs the people of Athens to greater and greater feats of conquest even as they're besieged by Sparta. Finally he assembles - through force of personality - a massive fleet to sail to Sicily and conquer its cities on behalf of Athens. That's when the trouble starts.

For various political reasons, Alcebiades is declared traitor to Athens and ordered to return for trial - a trial that is guaranteed to end in his death. So he flees - to Sparta. There he puts his military and diplomatic genius to work against his former people, with devastating results. And so on it goes for decades - back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes Alcebiades is in Sparta, other times back to Athens, sometimes at the court of the Persians and even living among the Scythians and other barbarian tribes along the northern Aegean. Around and around he goes, trading friends and favors for influence and political favors. He's generally a sympathetic character through much of the book, but it's all just a bit much to really hold your attention if you were hoping for the kind of gritty battles and focused action of The Gates of Fire.

It might be going too far to say that I disliked The Tides of War - it gave the feel of living in Greece and the 4th century B.C. well enough, and it expanded my knowledge of that historical period in a more enjoyable fashion than a stodgy textbook. But it didn't give me the kind of do-or-die tension that I was hoping for, and ultimately it just didn't entertain me as much as I'd expected it would. The best I can give Tides of War is a B-, and I can't really recommend it unreservedly.

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