While it took me awhile to get through this book because of circumstances, Last of the Amazons was a book I couldn’t put down when I resumed reading it in the dead of night ’til the morning.

This is my second book as I make my way through my two challenges :  Once Upon A Time IV and Spring Reading Thing 2010.

Author :  Steven Pressfield

Publication Date – First Edition :  June 1, 2002 (Hardcover)

Publisher – First Edition :  Doubleday

Publication Date – This Edition :  July 2003 (Trade Paperback)

Publisher – This Edition :  Bantam Dell

ISBN :  0-553-38204-7

The Story :

It is about 1250 B.C., way before Troy or the Battle of Thermopylae, a time where stories have been regarded as myth or legend. It has been told that a nation of Amazons, a warrior race of only women, existed as an independent, self-sufficient society that stood as a testament to the strength, intelligence and hardiness of the supposedly weaker gender.  Steven Pressfield picks up on this tale from accounts of Plutarch and legends and carves his own marvelous what-if of an all-female society with its own culture, mores, lifestyle and government.

The story opens with a Greek family’s nanny, an Amazon slave named Selene, who escapes and unwittingly induces her eldest charge to follow her. A search party of some of the noblest Greeks follow the trail of their comrade’s daughter and Selene. While at sea, the men who had  previously encountered the Amazons with King Theseus tell their tales of these extraordinary warrior women.

When King Theseus of Athens accidentally discovers these legendary women, he sets off an irrevocable chain of events that seal the Amazons’ fate. Antiope, the Amazonian queen falls in love with Theseus, and elopes with him. The new queen Eleuthera tells her nation that the elopement was actually a kidnapping.  In their fury, the entire Amazon nation rounds up its allies and marches on a warpath to Athens to rescue their queen. The story that follows centers on the politics, logistics, and brilliant war tactics these Amazons employ in their war with Athens and continues on to when Antiope returns to them as a foe and heralds the Amazonian civilization’s diminishment into the twilight of their age.

The Review :

I have come out impressed by yet another of novel by Steven Pressfield. Last year, I had been floored by Gates of Fire, his gripping must-read version of the Spartans’ desperate stand against the Persian empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. While Last of the Amazons falls a little short of this novel, it, nevertheless, still is a dazzling read.

There is nothing exciting in the first few pages of the book with the plodding pace and a rather abstract ramble on Amazonian beliefs. But if you just hang in there, you’ll notice that the pace picks up in a while. Soon, you find yourself drawn into a fascinating legendary nation of wholly warrior women equal to men in physical stamina and battle skills. Pressfield tells of a civilization of true feminists, sufficient unto themselves and needing no man except for the serious business of procreation.

Although Pressfield has his doubts of the existence of the Amazons, he writes of them as if he himself had gone back in time and been intimate with their society, lifestyle, and psyche. Indeed, Pressfield’s real forte here is his ability to get readers involved with the story and  through his vivid writing, immersed  in the culture and mindset of the Amazonian civilization.

Without the author’s note at the end about the historical reality of the Amazons being largely based on Plutarch’s accounts and unsupported by archeological evidence, I would have thought this story based on historical fact and not simply on the author’s remarkable imagination. I am sure however that his renderings of the battle scenes are well researched accounts of how lance, shield, horse, etc. had been employed or how different ancient warrior nations conducted themselves in battle.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Ancient battle enthusiasts will be delighted with Pressfield’s meticulous and fascinating detailing. It all comes to life with his vivid accounts of battle strategy, politics, weapons, psychology , emotions, tactics and gore in living detail. For instance, it is quite fascinating to read about how the discus was employed as a weapon.

For the more sociologically inclined readers, Pressfield will not disappoint with his wonderful depiction of Amazonian culture and lifestyle.  In addition,  he handles the dynamics of human decisions and emotions very well.  There even is a marvelous debate between King Theseus and Eleuthera on the advantages or disadvantages of civilized society, the Athenian King arguing for the settlement of a civilization for its advancement while the upcoming Amazonian Queen rebutting a wandering society’s grounding for its loss of freedom and oneness with the natural earth.

Just a small caveat:  Some may be confused with the format of the book. The story is told from about four or five character viewpoints so it would be most helpful to take note of the narrator’s name before every chapter. Also, as I have said, this book needs a little more reading attention with the slew of names and the author’s wordy and somewhat old-fashioned prose (perhaps made to match the “ancient-ness” of the story(?) ).

In A Nutshell:

Steven Pressfield is my go-to for ancient war books.  I have not yet read any author who can match his breathtaking battle scenes laid out in all its  glory, page after riveting page.   If you have, I would appreciate the info for my comparison.  Moreover, this book exemplifies Pressfield’s  exceptional talent in handling  intricate layers in a story.

On the whole, Last of the Amazons is a very well written novel, mesmerizing on all accounts.

My Mark :  Outstanding


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!