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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review of "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge"

Paul M. Bardunias posted the following review of Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge on He gave the book five stars as well! I am always excited by a good review -- but I learn from the critical ones, so either way a review is a good thing. I sincerely encourage all my readers to write and publish reviews of my books on line.  The opportunity for real readers to say what they think about books is, in my opinion, one of the most positively democratic aspects of the World Wide Web.  Now, here's Paul's review.
Helena P. Schrader has, in "Leonidas of Sparta: A Boy of the Agoge", prescribed a welcome antidote to the skewed visions of ancient Sparta put forth in works such as "Gates of Fire" and "300". If you have an interest in the real Sparta, without supermen in capes and Speedos, then this is a book for you. The book is wholly appropriate for teen readers, and would be a great holiday gift that sneaks an education in with the entertainment. While obviously a book for boys, girls would find in Sparta characters who have a confidence and power in their own right that does not derive simply from being coveted for marriage by competing men. This is a rare thing in novels set in the ancient world. If at times you feel you are reading "Ender's game" or Harry Potter with shields, this is only because those analogies are far more accurate than the "Full Metal Jacket" or 1940s war movie that you are used to.

All authors of historical fiction must draw from modern analogy to breathe life into long dead Spartan education system or Agoge. Other books have looked to the unlikely parallel of the barracks life of conscript marines, but she rightly sees the more accurate connections to an elite boarding school system. You realize in reading her novel, just as Leonidas does as the pages unfold, that the Agoge is not designed simply to make soldiers, but form Spartan citizens. The system produced men who would be hailed as a nation of philosophers as well as unmatched warriors. Just as importantly the system also produced women who scandalized the misogynists of other ancient societies with their unmatched freedom.

Schrader weaves a considerable amount of teaching into her novel in a remarkably readable fashion. I run a fairly successful blog on ancient Sparta and I found myself often trying to determine what sources she drew from for particular bits of information and where she inserted her own imagination. Much of this is accomplished through allowing us to see the lives of other characters through the lens of young Leonidas. While the young King is the focus of the novel, events often happen around him rather than to him, and I can understand why some would find this confusing if they were expecting a biography. But this book is as much about Spartan society as it is the life of one man.

Helena is a skilled writer, but the sheer density of information about characters and Spartan society conspire to slow the pacing of the early pages of the novel. She soon hits her stride though and does not look back. Chapter three alone is worth the price of the novel, providing insight into the complexity of Spartan social structures that are often glossed over. At once we can see why the system that made Sparta great also contained the seeds of her own destruction.


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