Leading classicist Hanson (The Father of Us All) focuses on the Theban defeat of the renowned Spartan army in 371 B.C.E. The hero of the tale is the Theban general Epaminondas, a devotee of Pythagoras and a warrior with unconventional attitudes about warfare, life, and death. His unexpected choices — not to mention the Spartan underestimation of the Theban “pigs” — allow the Thebans to fulfill the prophecies of Sparta’s downfall, many of which focus on the farmer Mêlon (meaning “apple”), whose journey from reluctant soldier to enthusiastic liberator gives the novel its emotional heart. Battle scenes are conveyed in exacting detail; a glossary of names and numerous line diagrams help readers differentiate characters and envisage the sites of central dramas. Told in a somewhat elevated style that simultaneously honors and updates the rhetorical heights of classic Greek histories, Hanson’s novel is both old-fashioned and lively. Given his notable body of work, it’s no wonder that his first fiction effort is rich in authentic detail and narrated with a confident authorial voice. His vigorous narrative not only offers insight into arms and armor, but also into the hearts of the men who bore them.
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