Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Reviews: Gates of Fire, Darkfall

Gates of Fire
by Steven Pressfield
Gates of Fire is the literary equivalent of the films Saving Private Ryan or Glory in that from the outside looking in it seems to capture not only the horror but also the courage and randomness of combat. Although the style of warfare depicted in Gates of Fire is extinct, war and death remain the same across time and place. I wonder if combat veterans think this book accurately illustrates the experience. The author is a Marine veteran. The book is on the reading list at West Point. Gates of Fire details the Battle of Thermopylae in which 300 Spartans allied with roughly 3-5000 Greeks from other city-states held off a Persian invasion force of at least twenty times their number for seven days before being betrayed, surrounded and annihilated in a last stand that has resonated throughout history as a definitive example of stubbornness, determination and total bada$$ery. To the very last, the Greeks disdained surrender, fighting with broken spear shafts, dented shields, blunted swords and finally their bare fists, feet and teeth. Sparta was not only famous for its military prowess but also for its wit, from which we have derived the word "laconic". This battle, or the legends that grew up around it, provided some famous quotations illuminating the particular and peculiar Spartan warrior ethos, which was considered extreme even by the standards of the time. Some of these include:


  • Come and get them! (King Leonidas' retort to a Persian envoy's demand that the Greeks lay down their weapons)
  • Good. Then we'll have our battle in the shade. (General Dienekes' response to a Greek refugee's claim that the Persian arrows would blot out the sun)
  • Eat hearty men for tonight we dine in hell with ghosts! (King Leonidas' exhortation to his soldiers upon news that they had been surrounded)
After King Leonidas was killed, his body became a rallying point for the remaining Greeks. In these last frantic minutes two brothers of the Persian Emperor Xerxes were killed. Enraged, Emperor Xerxes ordered King Leonidas' body to be decapitated and crucified, something considered sacrilegious by everyone. As the Persians are burying their dead and tending to their wounded they discover that one Spartan warrior is still alive, though slowly dying. Instead of having him killed Emperor Xerxes orders his own doctors to treat the man's wounds. Emperor Xerxes regrets the mutilation of King Leonidas' body. He wants to know more about the Greek, specifically the Spartan, way of life and of war.

This dying Greek soldier is Xeones. He is not a Spartan by birth but that rarest of things, a Spartan by acculturation. In childhood, Xeones' home city was sacked by rival Greeks. His parents were murdered. His cousin and likely betrothed Diomache was raped. Believing that Sparta could have stopped such injustice Xeones eventually migrated to Sparta, where he grew into manhood. He became something more than a helot and something less than a citizen. To make Xerxes understand why in defiance of common sense, the Spartans flatly refused to submit, Xeones tells his life story.

This story of course ends in The Battle of Thermopylae. There are a lot of old tropes here that are easily recognized but can still be enjoyed by the reader. Polynikes is a vain aggressive drill sergeant and war hero, who upon discovering that a raw recruit (whom he dislikes anyway) has made a mistake, proceeds to humiliate and brutalize that recruit and his entire platoon until they get it right. Obviously this recruit, thought soft and effeminate, eventually proves his mettle under unthinkably harsh conditions while Polynikes shows that he will sacrifice everything for his city and his brothers in arms. This is as much a philosophical and ethical meditation as it is a battle story. Gates of Fire asks what exactly makes a man willing to suffer great wounds, kill and die, when every instinct tells him to flee. The answer would seem to be both fear and love. The Spartan training replaced the fear of death with the fear of letting your unit down and substituted the love of life's comforts with the love of your fellow soldiers. I don't mean that last necessarily in any sort of erotic sense. Aristotle for example, thought that homosexuality was rare among Spartans precisely because their women had too much independence, were too attractive (Helen of Troy was a Spartan) and were too healthy. He considered this a bad thing. Go figure.
Spartan military prowess came at a cost, for its men and women. As King Leonidas haltingly and gently explains to a Spartan woman who angrily rebukes him for taking her husband on what is sure to be a suicidal mission, he chose his 300 not for their strength or battle prowess but for the emotional and mental strength of their wives and mothers. The Spartan system could never have survived without women's support. For example, two Spartan warriors, having become virtually blinded in battle, were sent home by King Leonidas. One refused to leave and fought and died with the rest of his troop. The second returned to Sparta. There the women (including his own relatives!) led the citizens in scorning him. He was called "The Trembler" and shunned by all. Desperate to restore his name he later threw himself into suicidal charges in the Battle of Plataea. In Gates of Fire, even though Dienekes has massive respect from his Peers, he himself often defers to his wife Arete. As Arete points out the men are said to rule Sparta but women rule men. Arete will take steps that simultaneously increase her husband's fame, save the life of her unacknowledged nephew Rooster, and make her chances of becoming a widow virtually certain.

Gates of Fire examines the ugliness that supported the Spartan life style. Sparta's standing army required total mobilization of Spartan men and constant training. Accordingly, many of the other masculine jobs in society were handled by servants or more precisely helots (slaves). In Gates of Fire one of the helot leaders is Rooster, the illegitimate son of a deceased Spartan hero. Rooster is Dienekes' nephew by marriage. But Rooster despises Sparta and despite Xeones' urgings regularly refuses opportunities to be legitimized and become Spartan. This could cost Rooster his life as the Spartan secret organization known as the Krypteia routinely kills helots who are thought seditious. Although Xeones has put down roots, gotten married and had children his mind still turns to his cousin, Diomache, for whom he has never stopped searching. And the Lady Arete might be able to help Xeones find her. To sum up this is really good well researched historical fiction. It's not just about a battle. Although we know how the story ended in broad terms, it is fascinating to look beneath the big picture to see how these ancients fought, lived, loved and died. We're not so different.





Darkfall
by Dean Koontz
This is one of Koontz's older books. I recently reread it. I think it's better than some of the stuff he does currently though it's not necessarily his best. It is very creepy though. I'm surprised it hasn't been made into a movie or at least a mini-film.It's about 400 pages but it was very quick reading. I think it's a good introduction to Koontz's style if you're not familiar with him. This is a perfect book to read if you have to travel or wait for someone in a hospital lobby or something similar.
It takes place in New York City. Jack Dawson is a recently widowed NYC homicide detective with two small children. He's not a self-righteous sort but he is fundamentally a good man who tries to see the best in people. He's also starting to have feelings for his new partner, Rebecca Chandler, a beautiful but cold woman whom everyone assumes is either a harsh feminist, a lesbian or both. He's not sure if Rebecca feels the same way. She's very tightly wound.

But while Jack is wondering what to do about this (and taking good natured and not so good natured joking from fellow officers) an evident gang war breaks out in NYC. Several members of the Carramazza Crime Family are found dead in very suspicious circumstances. Some of them have been killed in locked rooms. Many of the dead men emptied guns without apparently hitting anything. The coronor and medical examiners don't know what to make of the bodies since the bodies all appear to be chewed or stabbed to death. But they can't figure out what the weapon or animal being used would be. And some of these men were heard screaming and begging for mercy. These men were all hardened thugs and killers. 
Both from word on the street and an unpleasant meeting with the head of the Carramazza Crime Family himself, Jack and Rebecca learn that it's not a mob war. It's a blood feud. Someone has some very personal reasons to eliminate not only the Carramazza Crime Family but the entire Carramazza bloodline. And this person is just as evil as the Carramazza Boss, only far more powerful. Jack has already done some private investigating on his own and come up with a few ideas that Rebecca doesn't like and can't even bring herself to examine. Jack is openminded when it comes to the supernatural while Rebecca only believes what she sees. But when Jack's own family is threatened both Jack and especially Rebecca have to put aside their skepticism and deal with the fact that magic and hell are real. As mentioned this was a fast read. Apparently Koontz did some research on Vodou. The villain is not completely cartoonish but from other reading I've done I'm not sure that the Western Christian concepts of good and evil or heaven and hell necessarily translate all that well to other civilizations. So I think Koontz was making a lot of things up. Even so this book might have you wondering what was that sound on the stairs late at night.
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