Saturday, September 17, 2011
Yes, once again Ms Schrader has kept me up WAY past my bedtime for "just one more chapter." Rarely in historical fiction does this happen for me. I will hit a boring spot in a book and easily put it down until next time. Not so with the second book of this Leonidas trilogy "Leonidas of Sparta: A Peerless Peer." She had a tough job to outshine herself after the first part of this 3 part series, " A Boy of the Agoge" yet the author met the challenge with gusto.
All the main players of ancient Sparta are back, and some new ones add to the story without becoming confusing. Gorgo comes into her teenage years with timeless problems we can relate to. Leonidas becomes a man we would all desire to have in our lives as the ultimate compassionate alpha male. And the folks who surround these 2 ancient royal players have their own stories told too. Not a boring one in the bunch either. It's like a soap opera set in antiquity!
Now that I have plowed my way through this second book I once again cannot wait until the 3rd and final book comes out next year! If you even have a vague interest in what life may have been like for Leonidas, or the Spartan people at this time and place in history, you will dig this book.
William Styron, author of The Confessions of Nat Turner once commented that a historical novelist did best when given "thin rations". This book takes those scant rations available from the historical record and extrapolates them, using common sense as well as classical sources, to construct what life may have been like for Leonidas I. There are some interesting inconsistencies with the historical records -- for instance, it is not known if Cleombrotus was Leonidas' twin or younger brother, yet the series paints him quite convincingly as Leonidas' elder twin -- but on the whole, it provides a very interesting look at the dynamics of an unusual society.
Sparta is often treated by modern scholars as a nation of simple brutes, but records do not hold with this -- if the training of youths was simply a matter of testing them until they broke, Greek leaders from all over the peninsula would not have competed to send their sons to the agoge for whatever periods they could. Like military schools of today, Sparta's educational programme was much more clearly devoted to military *and* practical learning, but the relative dearth of universal military training during this period means that its military nature is over-emphasised. Moreover, the fact that attendance at the Spartan agoge meant for some préstige among other Greeks strongly implies that it was seen as a specialist school that was a great honour for youths inclined to eventually rise to rôles of command in their own city-state's military.
The examination of what Spartan adult life was like is an interesting view of comparison and contrast. In the era before supertankers and jet aircraft, military engagements were by necessity no more than half the year, before mud and rain made it impossible to manoeuvre effectively, and, even more importantly, avoid disease decimating the ranks (a killer that was more likely than death by battle wound up through the Second World War), and therefore, even though Spartans were certainly careful to keep themselves in training year round and maintain constant operational readiness, they also had personal, civilian lives that were just as important to them, if not more so. As any tactician can tell you, the most motivated fighter is one who fights to defend a society he feels is integral to his life. Were Sparta a brutal place dedicated to warfare and only warfare, there would be no society to defend.
In this book, it is interesting to see the evolution of Queen Gorgo from girlhood to womanhood, even though most of it is conjecture based on what *is* known of the training of Spartan women. This book is also surprisingly engaging for the middle part of a trilogy, traditionally a time when *any* storytelling lags. The agoge is notorious, and Leonidas' death is equally well-known, but this period could have been fairly dull, yet it is as engaging as the first book in this series. I recommend it strongly.