Book review: The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden
Bestselling author Conn Iggulden likes a big stage for his novels'¦ and they don't come bigger than the Persian Empire in the fourth century BC.
Stretching from the Aegean to northern India, the empire saw a succession of Great Kings who ruled with absolute power over as many as fifty million people and had charge of armies of tens of thousands of men.
But there were two enemies constantly in the shadows… the royal family’s own vaulting, self-destructive ambition, and the tough Spartan warriors of Greece, a small but well-drilled order of fighting men capable of inflicting defeats as legendary as the battles of Thermopylae and Marathon.
And in a historical period notorious for its ferocious battles, unmatched heroism and savage bloodshed, the outcome can only be brutal when a ferocious game of thrones is set in motion.
With the successful the Emperor, Conqueror and Wars of the Roses series safely tucked under his belt, Iggulden makes a spectacular return to the Ancient World with The Falcon of Sparta, a rip-roaring epic which retells the electrifying story of Prince Cyrus of Persia’s rebellion against his brother King Artaxerxes, and the famous March of the Ten Thousand which followed the battle of Cunaxa.
Steeped in intrigue, betrayal, tension, drama and the kind of full-throttle, blood-soaked action that has made Iggulden one of the giants of British historical novel writing, this gripping tale brings to life one of history’s most extraordinary episodes and injects it with a realism that is simply breathtaking.
King Darius II of Persia has enjoyed a long reign, much of that down to his wisdom. His empire, so vast that it cannot be walked in two or three lifetimes, encompasses many kingdoms ‘whose crowns he had crushed beneath his sandals.’
But there is still one army that is feared above all others… the Spartans – stubborn men of steel, discipline and self-sacrifice who have a long history of humbling the mighty Persians and are famous for their fighting prowess and stamina.
In 401BC, when King Darius dies, his eldest son Artaxerxes gains the throne but he has a younger brother, Prince Cyrus, a born warrior who is commander of the armies of Persia and has a personal and loyal guard of Spartan mercenaries always eager to play the game of thrones.
When Cyrus lays claim to his father’s crown, he does so with his elite army of Spartans at his side but battles can be won – or lost – with a single blow and when the dust of civil war settles, the Spartans are left stranded in the heart of an enemy's empire, without support, without food and without water.
Far from home, surrounded by foes, it falls to the young Athenian soldier Xenophon, a pupil of the Greek philosopher Socrates, to lead the 10,000 survivors against Artaxerxes’ legendary Persian warriors across 1,500 miles of hostile territory on the long march home…
Blending imagination and the writings of Xenophon himself – set down in a work called Anabasis around the year 370BC – Iggulden sweeps us away on an extraordinary adventure of warfare, barbarity, bravery, survival, determination and resourcefulness.
From the heat, turmoil and savagery of battle to the tyranny of absolute rule and the rigours of the Spartan army as they march through hostile territory, lawless tribes and privation on their journey to freedom, this is an epic tale told in rich, authentic detail and with the soaring prose of a master storyteller.
(Michael Joseph, hardback, £20)