Friday, September 28, 2012

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield (historical Greco-Persian Wars fiction)

Author Steven Pressfield's epic retelling of the legendary battle of Thermopylae ("hot gates"), Gates of Fire, is told by the sole Greek survivor, a Spartan Perioikoi named Xeones, slain via spear, but revived by King Xerxes to tell "the infantryman's tale."

Xeo begins in childhood, begging His Majesty's pardon, when his hands were broken and he lamented that he would never hold sword, shield, or spear. But later he discovered that hands that don't close can still hold an archer's bow steady and pull back the string with two fingers.

He goes on to describe his time as the battle squire of Alexandros, a gentle youth housing great bravery, and delves further into Alexandros's own military training, including a humiliating lesson on keeping one's shield battle-ready, the conquering of fear, the identifying of the slain, the unconventional work of their commander Dienekes, and a particularly grueling session from Polynikes:
"Imagine the pleasure that awaits you when you clash in line of battle.... Killing a man is like fucking, only instead of giving life, you take it. You experience the ecstasy of penetration as your warhead enters the enemy's belly and the shaft follows. You see the whites of his eyes roll inside the sockets of his helmet. You feel his knees give way beneath him, and the weight of his faltering flesh draw down the point of your spear.... Is your dick hard yet?"
(Read more from that passage here.)

Gates of Fire covers every aspect of the battle from the lengthy preparations through the skirmishes themselves to the aftermaths.  Pressfield does not shy away from — and seems to sometimes relish in — descriptions of carnage, from "carpets" of corpses trodden upon by those still fighting; to calf-deep lakes of blood, urine, and "unholy" entrail fluids.

We read about spears torn from one body then thrust into another, flying battle axes, arrows shot at point-blank range, split oaken shields, and numerous other spoliations that will please any reader who enjoys the barbaric nature of real hand-to-hand combat before guns made everything so... distant.

Pressfield keeps the immediacy of the action through gore and the intensity of leaders through their frequent use of insults and swearing.  A highlight of a different sort comes via an amusing and surprising conversation between Xeo and Lady Arete.

While reading Gates of Fire, I was surprised at the variety of other works it reminded me of.  It seems to take inspiration from I, Claudius and Shakespeare histories like Henry V, and from heroic fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin, as much as from the actual history of the Greco-Persian Wars (if not more so). 

It's easy to see why it has become required reading in the Marines and at West Point, preparing students for the fact of their own mortality and for situations when their greatest fear will be not of death but of hesitation.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shadows from Boot Hill by L. Ron Hubbard (western multi-cast audiobook)

On the run from the law for the hired killing of a banker, Brazos asks livery man Whisper Monahan to help him out. Brazos had to light a shuck immediately after the murder and had been unable to collect his fee: $500 in double eagles.

Scotty Brant has been poisoning lands downstream by using cyanide to get gold from iron oxide, killing entire herds of sheep and allowing Whisper to buy thousands of acres on the cheap.  Whisper offers Brazos $200 to kill Brant, giving Brazos much-needed funds and simultaneously allowing Monahan to make good on his land investment.

Trouble is, it's going to take three deaths to get one, because to get Scotty, Brazos has to get through son Swifty Brant and the family jujuman, Bilbo.  But a lack of superstition and a silver cross given by a Mexican girl are no match for a curse spat out by a dying witch doctor.

A supernatural Western originally published in June 1940 in Wild West Weekly, Shadows from Boot Hill, and its ilk were a rarity in the days of the pulps.  But author L. Ron Hubbard once again shows his talent and imagination, and this audio version, directed by Tait Ruppert with Firesign Theater alumnus Phil Proctor playing Whisper Monahan and Scotty Brant, is bound to appeal to fans of both the "weird" and the traditional.

The audio of Shadows from Boot Hill also features two more Western stories Hubbard wrote in the 1940s, "Gunman!" and "The Gunner from Gehenna", both directed by Jim Meskimen performed with equal skill by the participants, including Proctor and Meskimen himself.
Related Posts with Thumbnails