Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)
Series: Athenian – Book One
Length: 443 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.
In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions. None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority. Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens. However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before. Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.
As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home. This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.
As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour. However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae. Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?
Well damn, now that was an epic book. I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020. Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading. Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel. I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta. This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.
The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens. The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences. This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae. Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events. While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development. Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.
In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting. As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life. The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city. This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens. Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves). All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented. All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.
Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around. All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles. Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes. I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold. I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual. Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.
I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist. Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did. Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him. Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.
This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae. These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out. Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information. I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader. While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea. As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae. Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed. The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other. These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.
The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in. Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences. This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.