Author :  Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Date of First Publication :  March 2006  (Hardcover)

Publisher of First Edition:  William Morrow

Date of Publication for this Edition :  December 2006  (Mass Paperback)

Publisher for this Edition :  Harper Torch

ISBN 10: 0-06-085398-0

ISBN 13: 978-0-06-085398-3

No. of pages : 432

The Story:

Heaven and Hell had left their agents on Earth since the dawn of time on Earth — an angel to make sure things go right and a demon with the express mission to wreak havoc on mankind.  Things seem to be going so well for both through the centuries; but now the powers-that-be both above and below decide it is time for the showdown between good and evil.

Crowley, the demon had been charged by Hell to oversee the coming of the Anti-Christ.  But hey, he’s enjoying the twenty-first century and Earth is much more exciting than Hell.  Aziraphale, the angel, also in his comfort zone on Earth, finds himself much more comfortable being with humans than with the “hosts on high”.  Both are loath to see THE END.  So angel and demon strike an unlikely alliance to divert the Prophecies and avert Armageddon.

Only no one knows there was a mix-up in the hospital.  Both Crowley and Aziraphale try to influence the little boy, Warlock, to thwart his nature as an Anti-Christ.  Only too late did both realize that Warlock is just a normal boy;  it is Adam who is the Anti-Christ but he had grown up outside their influences.  So, Crowley and Aziraphale both race against time and the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse (Hell’s Angels) to see if they still stand a chance of saving the world.

The Review :

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett make a rollicking great writing tandem with Good Omens.  I had loads of laughs with this one. The authors must have had a ball collaborating on creating their funny version of  the Biblical Apocalypse.  And got paid for it too!  Lucky guys!

I wish I had read a Neil Gaiman and a Terry Pratchett book to discern which parts were influenced by which author; unfortunately, this is my first time with both and I had to pick up a co-authored book.

Crowley, a dapper demon  and the bookish angel Aziraphale are both lovable characters you wish you could get to know for real.  Despite the overall hilarity in this book, Gaiman and Pratchett throw in some philosophic bones to chew on from time to time, in their characters’ dialogues :  

“Well”, said Crowley….”haven’t you ever wondered about it all?  You know–your people and my people, Heaven and Hell, good and evil, all that sort of thing?  I mean why?”

“As I recall, ” said the Angel stiffly, “there was the rebellion and—“

“Ah yes.  and why did it happen, eh?  I mean, it didn’t have to, did it?”  said Crowley, a manic look in his eye.  “Anyone who could build a universe in six days isn’t going to let a little thing like that happen.  Unless they want it to, of course.  “

“Oh come on.  Be sensible,” said Aziraphale. doubtfully.

“That’s not good advice,” said Crowley.  “….If you sit down and think about it sensibly, come up with some very funny ideas.  Like : why make people inquisitive, and then put some forbidden fruit where they can see it with a big neon finger flashing on and off saying “THIS IS IT!”?

“I don’t remember any neon.”

Metaphorically, I mean. I mean, why do that if you really don’t want them to eat it, eh?  I mean, maybe you just want to see how it all turns out.  Maybe it’s all part of a great big ineffable plan.  All of it.  You, me, him, everything.  Some great big test to see if what you’ve built all works properly, eh? You start thinking :  it can’t be a great cosmic game of chess, it has to be just very complicated Solitaire……”

Well, why indeed?

To Read Or Not To Read :

Feeling bored?  Good Omens makes a good cure for a lazy weekend.  Its irreverent, wry wit,  goofy characters, wacky plotline, and footnotes about funny minutae just make this jocular bundle worth picking up.  Take this little aside for instance :

The end justifies the means, thought Aziraphale.  And the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. *

Footnote: * This is not actually true.  The road to Hell is paved with frozen door-to-door salesmen.  On weekends many of the younger demons go ice skating down it.

Unless you absolutely do not possess a shred of humor where Biblical prophecies are concerned or are a salesman of any kind—door-to-door and telemarketers included,  this book will tickle your funny bone.

Indeed, “the Apocalypse has never been funnier.” —- Clive Barker

My Mark :  Very Good!

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Finally, my last book for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I made very good time despite adding two more books to the list.  But early as it is, I’ll have to wrap up as the Holidays draw near and my chances to read more books decrease as things are starting to get hectic.

I’ve wet my feet in breadmaking and I’m experimenting on perfecting scrumptious cinnamon rolls and ensaimadas (Filipino brioche) for gift-giving.    As I’ve never baked anything except for the occasional brownies, I forsee myself ambitiously wrestling with bread recipes, baking my day away, and snatching up my book only in between rising times.  So, let’s see how many more reviews I can dish out.

This book was a great finale to the challenge, albeit  a dark and brooding one.

Author :  Tobsha Learner

Publication Date :  January 2, 2007  (Mass Market Paperback)

Publisher :  Tor Books

ISBN-10: 0765350467

ISBN-13: 978-0765350466

No. of pages :  480

The Story :

Ruth bas Elazar Saul is daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Cologne and a very good midwife with very unconventional methods.  Her  advanced  midwifery skills coupled with her studies in Kabbalah, taints Ruth’s reputation with suspicions of witchcraft in an era paranoid about heretics and devil worshippers.

She becomes the unfortunate target of the malevolent obsession of a Spanish friar and head of the Inquisition to Cologne.  Solitario takes his vengeance on an unknowing Ruth simply because she is the daughter of the woman who had jilted him and shredded his pride many years back.  Ruth is tried for witchcraft; but in the process gains the interest of the cleric, Detlef  von Tennen, cousin and close aide to the Archbishop of Cologne.

Detlef falls madly in love with Ruth and does everything in his power to avert her fate.  He succeeds and both start a love affair that in its time,  was unforgivable to both Jews and Catholics alike.  Amid this difficult union, Ruth and Detlef must struggle to live in a dangerous century at war with new philosophies threatening to overthrow its established beliefs, power and social structures.

The Review :

The book opens with “a woman writhing in labor”  which gave me the correct impression that I’d have a toe curling time with this one.

Learner is  an intense,  graphic writer who writes with a sensuality that is both raw and elegant.  Her torture scenes feel  horrendously realistic ; her descriptions of everyday life and her characterizations are rich and intimate, full of vivid details of seventeenth century Cologne, its lifestyle, its predominant psyche, and its prevailing social and religious atmosphere.

This novel is first and foremost a microcosmic representation of  a Europe inexorably marching toward the Age of Enlightenment, torn at one end by traditional society clinging tenaciously and fearfully to established institutions of power, thoughts, and morals and on the other, by radical philosophies and emerging new acceptances by free thinkers or the libertines of that time.

Solitario, the Spanish  Inquisitor, is the embodiment of the 17th century Roman Catholic Church, an institution reacting dangerously to threats to  its centuries-old European dominance by the emergence of new thoughts, values, mores and the new Protestant religion.  He is obsessed about bringing onto the Inquisition table  the Jewess, Ruth, and the breakaway cleric, Detlef, both of whom represent radical opposition to the faith which have begun to erode the Church’s right to absolute power.

Stories like these make me glad I was born in the 20th century, where we have education, modern conveniences, good medical knowledge and practices, and in most parts of the world, respect and freedom for all sorts of religions and ideas.  Imagine living in fear of torture and death because your ideas are heretically opposed to the prevailing beliefs of a Church which hold both  secular and spiritual domains in its grip.

It was also interesting for me to find out that Judaism has its own brand of occultism.  It has its own demons, grimoire, incantations, spells, and talismans.  The Kabbalah is practiced by a certain Jewish sect which does not find ready acceptance in the general Jewish populace; but nevertheless is a recognized albeit esoteric branch of the Jewish religion.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I have read reviews that slam this book for its love angle and gratuitous sex (which I didn’t find unwarranted at all).  The romance here is simply a support angle to the overall story of the book and is not the author’s point at all.  So if you are looking for a nice historical romance,  pass this up; this novel would be way out in left field.

However,  if you just want a well written story with a good historical background, The Witch of Cologne will be just the thing.  Although, be prepared for a very dark and somber tone (well matched with the era) throughout its entirety and for a substantial amount of graphic elements assiduously detailed in this book.

In A Nutshell :

Learner’s unconventional writing style marries quite well with her  objective of presenting a glimpse of medieval Europe in the cusp of social change, a dark and fearful transition for many,  when institutions of power, both political and religious, clawed desperately to maintain the status quo.  The story poses intelligent questions, some of which must have influenced how modern Europe evolved.

Don’t let the suggestive cover fool you into thinking this book is a shallow, sleazy read.  The book has the complexity and depth that makes it interesting and well worth your while — a perfect example  to heed the the adage:   “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

My Mark  :  Outstanding



I wanted a short, easy no-brainer.  I got everything I wanted in this :

Author : Annette Blair

Date of  Publication : December 2006

Publisher : Berkley Sensation  (Mass Paperback)

ISBN-10: 0786296577

ISBN-13: 978-0786296576

No of pages : 389

The Story :

Vickie, a witch in denial, inherits a wardrobe and opens it to find a beautifully carved carousel unicorn inside.  Desperate to pay her grandmother’s medical and funeral expenses, she advertises its sale on TV.  Rory, a descendant of the  once respectable Mackenzie clan now turned community pariah, sees  the woman of his dreams (I mean, literally) holding the answer to restore the good name of his family.

Long ago, his ancestor, a famous carver,  broke his engagement with a beautiful witch (Vickie’s grandmother) who people said, cast a curse upon the Scottish village.  Regretful all of his life, Rory’s grandfather, before he died,  sent his beloved witch his most splendid creation — a carousel unicorn, part of a merry-go-round that brought prosperity to the village;  but one that would never run again until the curse is lifted.

So, Rory goes to find this unicorn, with a mission to take it, bring it back, rebuild the carousel, and restore the community’s prosperity and his good name.  Only thing, he has to contend with the witch and choose between love and family honor.

The Review :

As I mentioned, I just wanted a short easy read, a no-brainer after “Exile. Well, a real no-brainer is what I got!  I know, I know…the synopsis sounds cheesy and serves me right for picking this out of a sale bin again just because the title was a parody of  “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe“.  I’m not above reading shallow, fun  lit and I thought this was a cute, little romance with some magic thrown into it.  NOT!

The characters were odd and totally without some self-respect, either.  I don’t know what Blair was trying to accomplish. For instance, I think she wanted everything for her main character, Vickie.  She wanted her sexy, yet dressed her in dowdy vintage clothes;  a bold sex siren yet a frightened virgin (technically speaking since she deflowered herself years ago with dildos all named Brock—*shudder, shudder*–but has never been with a man); bohemian, cluttered, and fun but essentially good for nothing — can’t do business, cook, clean, balance books, etc. to save her life!  So here comes the knight in shining armor, the ruggedly handsome Scot who can do everything!  Cook, clean, balance books, organize, repair anything, and make her and others’ blood  boil for want of this stud. Thankfully, he falls short of being perfect by his hermitic attitude.

With amateurish writing, a main character whose personality ridiculously morphs from one thing into another, and annoying minor characters in the mix, you just gotta be drunk to like this trash.

My Mark :  Poor — Laughable;  Don’t Bother

From the spiritual, “The Shack“, to the shallow….

Author :  Christina Dodd

Date of Publication :  February 2007 (mass paperback)

Publisher :  Signet

ISBN-10: 0451220560

ISBN-13: 978-0451220561 No. of pages :  400

The Story:

Meadow  Szarvas breaks into hunky, sexy, billionaire Devlin Fitzwilliam’s home to steal a priceless painting (created by her famous grandmother)  to pay for her mother’s cancer treatments.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), she falls, hits her head and gets caught.  Meadow tries to weasel her way out of jail by pretending to have amnesia.  Astute Devlin knows this for a lie but plays along to the tune of his own schemes.  He insists that she is his wife.   They were married in Majorca.  Does she not remember their romantic meeting?

Now Meadow is helplessly embroiled in both their lies but she must stay to find that masterpiece, for her mother’s sake.

But she is not the only one interested in such a valuable painting.   Someone else is willing to  kill to find it.  Now Meadow is danger, not only of losing her heart but also her life…

The Review :

I suspected this was a quick read and I was right.  “Tongue In Chic” is  the type of book you’d grab if you just wanted a typical romance—you know, the one where a dashing, ultra wealthy (always a romantic criterion) , handsome man falls head over heels with a ravishing, unpredictable (she can never be boring)  kind-hearted girl.  It’s the classic love-team where opposites attract.

As in all romantic novels, there must be conflict to heighten the drama; so, in this case, the amnesia and marriage lies.  In the beginning, these are interesting enough to develop the romance but later,  grow too lame and stretched out to still be believable fodder for romantic conflict.  You’d eventually think, “Why can’t they just admit the truth to each other already?”  The story starts to get silly from thereon.

As for the mystery/suspense part of the book, it does help prod the otherwise boring romantic plot along but it’s not much of a plot saver.

To Read Or Not To Read :

If you can get past the femme fatale’s eye-rolling cheesy name, Meadow (ugh!), her childish and inane impetuousness (like suddenly dropping her clothes in the middle of a garden just because it was a full moon…and that after playing so hard to get…huh?),  then by all means, read!  You may get all shivery with Dodd’s hunky delight,  a strong, capable, muscle-bound knight in shining armor worth lusting for.

While you’re at it, try figuring out why this book is titled as it is — “Tongue In Chic“.  Why?   Still beats me…

In A Nutshell :

This book is a commercial romance;  that’s why I shouldn’t expect too much.  It wasn’t all that bad— but I may be saying this just because I fell for the hero. 🙂

Grudgingly, then, I give this book:

My Mark  :   Ok (but you can chuck it after and not miss it)

Merrick” wasn’t too heavy on the gothic atmosphere so it was not difficult to decide to pick up another gothic-themed novel for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. “The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters”, was initially quite far down my TBR list before this challenge; but, being one mentioned in the pool of books the challenge host, Stainless Steel Droppings, had lined for himself, I decided to plunge into this heavy, page-laden book for my next read.

Author : Gordon Dahlquist

Date of Publication : 2006  (Hardcover edition)

Publisher : Bantam Books

ISBN-10: 0385340354

ISBN-13: 978-0385340359

No. of pages :  768

The Story :

In Victorian England, a rich plantation heiress receives an abrupt “dear john” letter from her beau.  In her pride, the stricken Miss Temple decides to follow her fiance to find out the reason for his rejection.  She tails him on a long train ride and arrives at Lord Vandaariff’s huge labyrinthine Harschmort Manor where a  masked ball is in full swing presumably for the engagement of Vandaariff’s daughter to the German Prince of Macklenberg.  She is mistaken as a woman sent to undergo a mysterious “Process” but is soon discovered to be a gate-crasher, deemed to have seen too much.  Suddenly Miss Temple finds her little adventure taking a dangerous turn when she is forced to save her own life.

At that same time, a half blind assassin, Cardinal Chang, is at the ball with a mission to terminate a Colonel Trapping.  He creeps about for his quarry only to find him already murdered.  But who, why, and how are questions that leave him baffled.  A few days later, he is approached by a wealthy sophisticate  who asks him to find a woman, Isobel Hastings (Miss Temple who gave an assumed name) who is believed to be the killer of the Colonel.

Meanwhile,  Doctor Abelard Svenson of the Macklenburg Prince’s entourage loses his charge in Harschmort Manor.  His search leads him to conclude that  something sinister is brewing in the Vandaariff home.  His independent investigation suddenly imperils his life but his duty-bound nature forces him to continue to try to protect his Prince.

In pursuit of their own agenda, these three people stumble on a secret cabal whose sinister plans involve strange alchemical scientific processes and malign blue glass books which serve as a dire yet addicting repository of memories while relinquishing a person of the same.  Anyone who stares into its thin, crystal pages is stripped of their personal memories and turned into pleasure-addicted, compliant zombies, easily controlled and subverted to the group’s aims.

Miss Temple, Cardinal Chang, and Doctor Svenson propitiously meet and form an unlikely triumvirate bent on stopping this unholy cabal.

What follows is a merry chase with mystery, suspense, science fiction, and even a little romance.  Lest this be construed as simply a long, quaint narrative, Dahlquist has thrown in a good deal of  sex and a bit of gore in the mix which contrast quite nicely with its Victorian prudery and formality.

The Review :

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters” is a brilliantly creative debut from author, Gordon Dahlquist.  It is a unique albeit outlandish novel that will, as you read, play out old-fashioned comic book scenes in your head.  Indeed, the narrative would lend itself very well to comic strip illustrations of its events, complete with “Boom!”, “Pow!”, “Whack!” sounds written on it.   And like an old-fashioned comic book, the heroes often extricate themselves from sticky situations after long dialogues with the villains, instead of each realistically  going straight into action to resolve the conflict.  Although an annoyance to some, it does have its charms, especially when executed with Dahlquist’s wonderful prose.  Besides, such an outdated style is quite at home with the book’s outré antiquated atmosphere as well.

Although the book has this unreal yet special flavor, its characters are surprisingly well developed, each discovering himself/herself as the adventure unfolds.

Division of the book’s chapters deal with the narrative accordingly from one character’s perspective.  So for instance, one chapter deals with adventures of Miss Temple, the next, those of Cardinal Chang, etc.  Being long chapters, the reader may find himself going back through a previous few pages to refresh his memory of the others’ experiences.  Still, it wasn’t much of an annoyance as, on the whole, the book had cast its charms on me enough to discount little bothers like this.

What is most captivating about the book is not its unusual plot nor its dark  steampunk  theme but its author’s ornate prose that gives so much allure to the novel.  His style is romantic yet explicitly descriptive, laced with intelligent humor and irony:

“His hair was pale but streaked with grey, long and greasy, combed back behind his ears.  His coat was fine enough but unkempt— in fact the man’s whole appearance gave the impression of a once-cherished article — a sofa, for example — that had been left in the rain and partially ruined.” — p. 155

“Moral perspective is what we carry around with us — it exists nowhere else, I can promise you.   Do you see?  There is liberation and responsibility — for what is natural depends on where you are, Bascombe.  Moreover, vices are like genitals — most are ugly to behold, and yet we find our own dear to us.” — p. 164

To Read Or Not To Read :

To enjoy this book,  be prepared to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow.  After all, it is fantasy.

Mind you, this is a lengthy novel, of which its chief fault (according to some reviews), is its wordiness and long-windedness.  For me, however, this is exactly the novel’s charm as it rests on Dahlquist’s excellent descriptive prose, without which a  book like this can become rather tedious and boring when rendered with a flat, indelicate hand.   Slash the verbiage and this may end up an unremarkable read — not bad, but not great either.

You must have the time to indulge in this book;  otherwise,  you’ll be better off with something else.

As An Aside :

For all my praises for this novel and despite its glowing reception by critics, Bantam Books, its publisher,  has written this off as a massive failure. The book failed to pull in the sales and lost Bantam over U$850,000, after having advanced two million U. S. dollars to the author for a two-book deal.

Most of those, however, who have put in the time to read the book, review this novel with praises.  Perhaps, in time, more readers will get to know this atypical literary work and appreciate it for its originality.

The sequel, “The Dark Volume“, must have already been released this year.   This definitely goes into my list of “must-haves” for 2009. 🙂

In A Nutshell :

This is one of the best books I’ve enjoyed this year.  Its strangeness and inventiveness coupled with Dahlquist’s superb writing skills really had me riveted.  A definite keeper!

My Mark  :  Excellent

Merrick” is my first choice for the R.I.P. IV Challenge just because it’s been quite some time since I’ve read anything from my all-time favorite gothic author, Anne Rice.  As a side story created from her famous vampire and Mayfair witch series,  it merges  Rice’s vampire world with those of her witches’.

Author :   Anne Rice

Date of First Publication :  October 17, 2000

Publisher of First Edition (Hardcover) :  Alfred A. Knopf

My Edition’s Publication Date :  July 2001

My Edition Published By :  The Ballantine Publishing Group (Mass Paperback)

No. of Pages :  379

What It’s All About :

Readers of Rice’s vampire series will be familiar with David Talbot, the secretive Talamasca society’s former Director-General turned bloodsucker by the indomitable Vampire Lestat.  As a favor to his preternatural friend Louis, he approaches the love of his former life,  Merrick, a powerful mortal descended from a long line of witches of the Mayfair clan.  He asks her to call the spirit of a dead vampire child, Claudia, whom Louis had so loved and protected.  From Louis’ desire to know about the witch who agreed to grant his utmost desire,  the story of Merrick is told by David who recounts her life, from the little girl she was when she first came to the Talamasca’s attention to the beautiful, sensual, powerful witch she has become–dangerous enough even to a vampire.

It would be a Rice vampire fan’s  interest to know that the famous Lestat makes a minor comeback here.

The tale revolves mostly on the new character, Merrick,  although there are some jolting surprises by our beloved vampires toward the end.

My Review :

Anne Rice is in her usual passionately sublime style with “Merrick“.  The feel is deliciously dark although there is always a lofty atmosphere, which is a classic Anne Rice stamp on her gothic novels. Her characters always seem to yearn toward something much more and if anything, her novels always have a sense of hope and salvation.

She imbues her unholy characters with strong human passions, and in these are her characters’ saving graces which grip the reader’s affinity and empathy.    When Louis or  David feel, they feel deep pathos, exultation at beauty, stunned awe, infinite hatred, and all-consuming love.  There seems to be no in-between for Rice’s characters.

This is particularly true with her vampire personalities which thrive on beauty.  She has been consistent of their traits from the first book in the vampire series, “Interview With A Vampire” ’til this book.  To illustrate, David’s thoughts on looking at Louis:

“He looked rather splendid in his sorrow.  Again he made me think of the paintings of Andrea del Sarto.  There was something lush in his beauty, for all the sharp and clear well-drawn lines of his eyes and mouth.”  — p. 81

Moreover, her characters are always strongly sensual and oftentimes have no sexual boundaries.  This leaves the author a lot of leeway in exploring sexual issues.  In this particular novel, age factors and homosexuality.

As in most of her other novels,  expect some philosophical meanderings in this one.  As Rice’s vampires are deep feelers and thinkers, she keeps a consistency in their traits all throughout her chronicles.  This novel is no exception:

Louis : “You speak of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as magical, and I understand you, because if the Bread and Wine are transformed into the Holy Sacrifice of the Crucifixion, it is magical, but why does it involve blood?…

What I’m saying is, we might compare rituals the worlds over in all religions and all religions and all systems of magic, forever, but they always involve blood.  Why?  Of course I know human beings cannot live without blood; I know that ‘the blood is the life’, saith Dracula;   I know that humankind speaks in cries and whispers of blood-drenched altars, of bloodshed and blood kin, and blood will have blood, and those of the finest blood.  But why?  What is the quintessential connection that binds all such wisdom or superstition?  And above all, why does God want blood?”– p. 83

You never leave a book from her vampire series without some food for thought.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Although Anne Rice does go back to give a bit of background on her characters,  it would be better for new readers to read the first two or three novels in her “Interview With the Vampire” series so that they would know the characters in context.  Not having a background on the Mayfair witches is alright because Merrick is a new character;  but the Louis, Lestat, Claudia, and David Talbot are vital characters upon whose histories the reader’s appreciation depends.

If you had read the first six novels in the Rice’s  vampire collection,  “Merrick” is a must-read.  It may not stand out as the others but in this, Louis goes through a major turning point which should not be missed.

In A Nutshell:

Those who have not read Anne Rice should know that she has written a wonderful series on vampire and another independent series on witches.  Those worlds had not touched each other until this book; so that Rice’s fans of both series had been thrilled to know that the author breathed new life especially to her vampire chronicles by merging them in “Merrick“.

The resulting novel is quite good; however, it is not that close to Rice’s best ones.  Nevertheless, it is a good addition to her vampire chronicles for her famous pair, Lestat and Louis, are back and are setting the stage for more adventures with a looming war with the Talamasca.  And Rice is still in top form with her lush detailing and profound prose.

My Mark :  Very Good

My knowledge of this book came from reading a blogger’s take on the movie, “300“.  I do not recall the site anymore but I do recall the blogger’s disappointment in the movie’s distance from historical facts. (As per another blog, “300” was supposed to be based on some comic book  and was meant to be more of a visual treat rather than a factual account on the Battle of Thermopylae.)  This book is one he expressly recommended as one of the best fiction novels on that famous battle as the events and descriptions thereof are well-researched and hold true to history.

Author  :  Steven Pressfield

First Publication Date :  October 20, 1998

First Publisher   :  Doubleday

This Edition’s Publication Date :  September 1999

This Edition’s Publisher :  Bantam Books

No. of Pages :  460

ISBN : 0-553-58053-I

The Story :

After the Persian’s victory at the pass of Thermopylae, a Greek soldier is discovered as the sole survivor of that horrendous battle.  At King Xerxes’ command, the man, Xeones, is spared and nursed as much as could be done for a man with grievous wounds.  It is Xerxes’ desire to know his enemies  whose paltry numbers have decimated a staggering multitude in his army.  As much as his desire is so,  it is also the Greek’s urgent need to tell the story to immortalize the men who valorously held the pass against insurmountable odds.

He begins his discourse with his life’s story, from a homeless boy of a conquered city to a helot in service to a Spartan master.  Of  Sparta he describes its military way of life, where self-discipline and subordination of the needs of one for the many are paramount virtues.  Boys, as young as 12, are subjected to military training, a way of life that would make them into formidable warriors and therefore, real men, ready to defend their state for honor.  Battle training does not merely mean molding superb physiques and extraordinary fighting prowess.  There also exists the Spartan psychology of war in which battle philosophies are inculcated to create a strong foundation of selflessness and a state of mind that renounces fear in the face of death.  This has made Sparta’s military might superior to all as their battle readiness is a product of complete physical, mental, and emotional endurance.  Even Spartan women are physically fit  and stoically ready to give up husbands and sons to defend Sparta.

Under the huge threat of the Persian invasion, Sparta rallies other Greek states to counter this dangerous intention.  The Spartan king, Leonidas, selects 300 soldiers to march to Thermopylae to defend this narrow pass into Greece.  These 300, along with their Greek allies totals a handful 7,000 against 2,000,000 Persian enemies.

Xeones’ narrative breathes life into the personalities behind this historically famous “last stand” and earns for the Hellenes, in particular Sparta, the respect of the enemy who are awed by Greek determination to defend their country to the last man.

The Review :

Few books on war may ever enthrall one as much as “Gates of Fire“, Steven Pressfield’s brilliantly executed story on the Battle of Thermopylae.  The story is done with great mastery for depicting human nature, Spartan culture and psychology, and ancient Greek warfare and battle tactics.

Although war and the violence of  hand-to-hand combat may be alien to most of us, Pressfield makes the sights, smells, sounds, and emotional experiences of the fight so palpable, it intrudes the comfort of one’s reading chair.  One can feel the grit, the determination, the almost inhuman physical and mental endurance, and the nobility of it all.

The characterization is very good.   His ancient warriors do put a new dimension on the concept of  “real men”.   Aside from pure brawn and unimaginable stamina, they are able to transcend basic human nature in the face of insuperable odds.  One may be drawn to how humanly vulnerable the characters are to many weaknessees, like fear, the desire for self preservation, etc. and be filled with admiration for their ability to rise above themselves for the good of the many.

Pressfield’s writing has a poetic quality, rich in metaphors  and analogy, which greatly enhances the descriptive style of his work.

“…Instead each warrior’s lungs pumped only for breath; chests heaved like foundry bellows, sweat coursed into the ground in runnels, while the sound which arose from the throats of the contending masses was like nothing so much as a myriad quarrymen, each harnessed to the twined rope of the sled, groaning and straining to drag some massive stone across the resisting earth. ” — p. 297

What may please one more is that although “Gates of Fire” is a fictional novel,  it is , I believe, laboriously researched and therefore historically accurate.  The author’s knowledge of the battle and characters seem so intimate as to make one believe he had been there himself.  What also makes the book more special is the fact that it also deals with interesting Spartan psychology and philosophy of war:

“War not peace, produces virtue.  War, not peace, purges vice.  War, and the preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man.  It unites him with his brothers and binds them in a selfless love, eradicating in the crucible all which is base and ignoble.  There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods.   Do not despise war….do not delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.” — p.157

How does one conquer fear of death, the most primordial of terrors….Dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion.  Each hound knows its place.  He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below.  Fear conquers fear.  This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear:  that of dishonor.  Of exclusion from the pack.”  — p.265

“Habit will be your champion.  When you train the mind to think one way and one way only, when you refuse to allow it to think in another, that will produce great strength in battle. — p. 159

The excerpts above may appear verbose or too lofty for some when taken as is, but as part of the book it doesn’t seem so.  Steven Pressfield manages to balance his writing to create a wonderful reading experience of a novel — a  remarkably inspirational gem I think few of its genre can equal.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Definitely, a must read!  I must say this is one of the best “battle books”  I’ve ever come across.  It’s a testosterone-laden narrative full of blood, guts, muscle, and masculine stoicism;  yet it is poignant too for the tremendous sacrifice, honor, and virtues  all upheld in this story as well.

For budding ancient war enthusiasts, you will be thrilled by the accurate depiction of battle techniques, strategies, rigorous training methods and the unwavering mindset one must have to become truly Spartan.

Somehow it is hard to believe that men with such physical and mental endurance such as these Spartan warriors ever existed.  But the  mind-boggling part is that they did!  The human mind and body is actually capable of so much more than what we believe so.

Imagine tearing your hamstring (agonizing enough in itself)  and still getting up to fight, using tremendous leg power to push against a human enemy wall, pushing back in return, all the while carrying a spear and a massive oak and bronze shield.   This you should do without surrendering to pain and self-pity, for hours on end with hardly a respite for food and water.   Sounds ridiculously incredible?  Yet this could have been what a warrior must have endured to keep the phalanx intact:

“…I could see the warrior’s feet, at first churning in disarray for purchase on the blood and gore-beslimed earth, now settle into a unison, a grinding relentless cadence….With a heave, the warriors’ shield-side foot pressed forward, bows-on to the enemy;  now the shield-side foot planted at a ninety-degree angle, dug into  the mud; the arch sank as every stone of the man’s weight found purchase upon the insole, and, with left shoulder planted into the inner bowl of the shield whose broad outer surface was  pressed into the back of  the comrade before him, he summoned all force of tissue and tendon to surge and heave upon the beat.  Like ranked oarsmen straining upon the shaft of a single oar, the unified push of the men’s exertions propelled the ship of the phalanx forward into the tide of the enemy. “— pp. 296 – 297

Well, if such “supermen”  existed before, one may come to think :  how come we don’t make many of them anymore?  Tee Hee! 😉

As An Aside :

It is interesting to note  : “‘Gates of Fire‘ is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.”  — Wikipedia

It has been floating around that this movie will be adapted to cinema.  However, this project is still in development with no particular date in sight.  Don’t be lazy though and wait for the movie.  Pick up this book;  it’ll be well worth your time.

In A Nutshell :

Steven Pressfield is now on my personal list of fave authors for “Gates Of Fire“, a very beautifully written graphical novel which showcases the author’s superior writing talent.    This is one of those books you can read again and again through the years.  Definitely a keeper and a treasure on my shelf.

My Mark :  Excellent;  Superb!