Spartan is one of those epic historical tales set in a far-distant period unfamiliar to most of us. It tells the tale of Talos, a Spartan baby born a cripple who, as per Spartan is law left to die because he will never make a warrior. Rescued by a shepherd who hears his cries, Talos defies his limitations and grows up to be both strong and clever. Raised as a slave, his courage sets him on a collision course with his own heritage and sets him fighting against his unknown brother.
There are elements of Sparta which are hugely predictable and formulaic. The pitting of brother against brother and the constant misfortune that besets the lead character is a staple of the genre. Talos, it seems, is never destined to find peace and each time he finds a small moment of happiness, cruel fate tears it away from him. This is an element which the book has a tendency to overuse in order to drive the plot forward. Yet, despite this, I couldn't stop reading the book. It takes on a momentum all of its own, rattling along at such a pace that you find yourself gripped by the events, even if, in your heart you know that they are conforming to genre standards.
The depth of historical detail is stunning. Apart from the Battle of Thermopylae (the subject of the film "300"), I know very little about Spartan society; I now feel much better informed. The harsh laws and highly regimented routines which governed the lives of the people, the cruel treatment of the Hellenic slaves, the constantly shifting alliances between the Greek states and within Sparta itself are all convincingly recreated.
It's no surprise then, to learn that author Manfredi is a historian by training. Yet, at no time do you feel you are being lecturered, nor that historical information is being forced into the plot to try and provide some sort of authenticity. The historical detail adds to the atmosphere and even if you hated history at school, the skilful way Manfredi intertwines real historical events and personalities with his fictionalised account is likely to win you over.
Yet, Manfredi is careful to ensure that this depth of historical detail does not weigh the book down. From the very start, it is a skilful blend of fast-paced action, regular plot development and real history. It grips the reader's imagination like few other titles I can think of and from the word go, I was hooked. It has that rare intangible quality that makes you keep on reading, devouring the pages at a rapid rate because you are so keen to find out what fate has in store for each of the characters. When you finally finish the book, you can't help feels a slight twinge of regret because you have finally reached the end and there is no more to read.
Of course, if you hate history with an absolute passion, then you are likely to find the book long-winded and dull (it is a fairly thick tome). The historical setting is a vital part of the book and Manfredi does spend a great deal of time re-creating the sights and sounds of everyday life in Sparta and the other Greek states. For most people, this will add to the superb atmosphere of the book; some will feel that the attention to detail is simply boring.
Characters are similarly strong and well developed. With each shift in fortune, or each new revelation about Talos' past (or future), he becomes more uncertain as to what the correct course of action should be. His character changes drastically over the course of the book as a direct result of his experiences. The warm, carefree boy turns into a generous adult, before constant misery and misfortune turn him into a cold, heartless youth and so on. By the end of the book he is very different to the young man we encountered at the start.
True, you do need to pay attention to what you are reading. Names of places and people will sound deeply unfamiliar to modern, western ears and can be confusing. Thanks to the epic scope of the book (which takes place over around 20 years, spread across multiple ancient civilisations) there are a lot of names to remember and it can feel like a bit of a challenge sometimes to keep track of who everyone is and their relationship to the main character (not helped by the fact that Talos, changes his name halfway through the book!)
Credit must be also be given to the translator of Spartan. Often when you read books in anything other than their native language, some passages have been clumsily translated and jar badly on the ear. Here, it was virtually unnoticeable that the book was a translation. The tone and language used was extremely evocative and well-suited to the story; it conveyed just the right amount of passion, emotional turmoil, descriptive element and historical detail and I didn't feel I was missing out on anything by reading a translation.
This was a title I picked up on a whim, knowing nothing about either the book or its author. In this instance, that whim paid off with a fascinating book which gripped me from start to finish. The plot might not be all that original, but it is told with such verve and style that it is almost impossible not to enjoy it.
Pan, 6th ed. 2006
© Copyright SWSt 2011