The Gates of Athens – Conn Iggulden

“The dust of mountain flowers lay thick on the air, like perfume or boiled varnish.”

Having enjoyed Conn Iggulden’s work before (particularly his fantasy, as CF Iggulden) and as a big fan of stories set around ancient history, I thought this book would tick quite a few boxes for me. Starting with the battle of Marathon, ending with Thermopylae, I was looking forward to the political intrigues of Sparta versus Athens, and the epic war of Greece versus the Persian Empire.

Alas, it was not quite the book I hoped it would be. Perhaps I expected too much 300 and instead got a measured, personal account of a handful of characters whose names I struggled to keep straight. Okay, partly on me as I kept putting the book down and those read dates below are accurate (ahem!). I might have been more likely to just give up if it wasn’t an ARC, but I think it does say something that I kept coming back and reading another chapter. It wasn’t a bad book at all, it just didn’t ever quite spark my excitement.

And really, given the topics, it should have. This isn’t just the run up to the famous events at Thermopylae, but gives a much greater understanding of Grecian life at that time. Fights on both battlefield and political arenas, nefarious plotting and exile, and the threat of wholesale annihilation forcing former enemies to put feuds aside for the greater good. But also personal accounts of marriage and being forced to choose between your ideals and being ostracised from everything you hold dear – yeah, there’s plenty here. Just… nope, it didn’t grab me.

One possibility is that, while taking a ‘personal’ view, it’s of an important man with influence, wealth, and respect. Other viewpoints used are much the same. Women are background, the children pawns for the MC’s emotions. Slaves are mentioned – and quickly overlooked. Even the character’s peers are either followers, or simply wrong with little nuance. Did we need another war retelling that centres around a few heroes saving everyone else through their natural brilliance, no matter how many little details attempt to humanise them?

Looking at the reviews online and this does seem to be something of a marmite (ie love/hate) book. Many adored it; others were bored. Alas, I fell into that latter category. But it does seem to be down to personal preferences rather than a huge flaw in the book, so as they say your mileage may very well vary on this one. If you do fancy giving it a go, be warned that there isn’t a great deal of resolution at the end, instead leading into the already-available book 2, with the third and final part reportedly due this summer.

gates of athens coverNetGalley eARC: 464 pages / 50 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: Athenian book 1
Read from 15th September 2020 – 7th March 2022 (oops!)

My rating: 5/10 – it’s well written, but just didn’t spark my interest

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