Ataxerxes, newly-crowned king of Persia, seeks to secure his throne. Following his father’s advice and example, he seeks to eliminate the threat posed by his younger brother, Cyrus.
Incensed by his brother’s betrayal, the formerly-loyal Prince Cyrus gathers an army to depose his tyrant brother. Against the vast might of the Achaemenid Empire, he brings an army composed of Persian troops and Greek mercenaries, spearheaded by Spartans, soldiers who are famed the world over for their discipline and prowess.
Xenophon, an Athenian no longer welcome in his own city, joins Cyrus’s army. As the two brothers war over the fate of an empire, he looks for a new purpose and sense of identity.
As is possibly already clear, this book starts slowly. There’s a lot of necessary setup to run through and a lot of characters to be introduced before the story gets rolling. I don’t think that’s a fault in the book so much as an unfortunate necessity of writing historical fiction set in an area that doesn’t receive as much popular attention as many others. I read rather a lot of historical fiction, and I’d consider my knowledge of history to be at least average, but I’m still much more au fait with Imperial Rome or Napoleonic France than I am with the incredibly complex history of Persia.
Once all the introductions have been made, the novel picks up pace. Armies move across vast distances and politicians engage in Byzantine machinations. For a book about a war, The Falcon of Sparta has surprisingly little focus on the actual battles. They take place, of course, and are described, but the meat of the story is about movement and supplies. It’s good to read a book that takes a view higher above the battlefield, and is probably a lot more true to life than stories where every plot point is resolved through skill of arms and firmness of purpose.
Iggulden has clearly done a lot of research into the period. Everything drips with detail and the prose is evocative, bringing the ancient world to life. It is, admittedly, archetypal, and some necessary gaps in historical knowledge have been filled in, but it is hard to begrudge any of that, given the distance in time and the way that almost everyone agrees on the broad strokes.
The book is, of course, based on a true story, and one that was completely unfamiliar to me. I nobly didn’t look up any of the characters until the end, and my suppositions about what was going on and how this connected to my limited understanding turned out to be almost totally wrong. That’s not a criticism, but it did make me realise that I should spend more time reading history itself.
This is proper historical fiction – fiction grounded in history rather than just using it as a backdrop. It’s not heart-pounding action, but that’s not what you want. I find the best historical fiction leaves you with sadness and awe – the amazing things people managed to do are always so much more impressive than the things we imagine they might. Humans are capable of truly astonishing things, and reminding us of that is, to my mind, one of the key duties of the genre.
The Falcon of Sparta is fascinating, and unusual, and enriching. I enjoyed reading it, and I understand more about a fascinating set of cultures than I did before I started. I recommend this book.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should explain that I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley.