I was sent an advance copy of this novel by the publishers, Penguin/Random House and I was very happy to accept it as Iggulden was one of the writers who got me into this historical fiction stuff with his Emperor series. I enjoyed those immensely but must admit I’ve not read anything else by him as the periods he was covering didn’t really interest me. That is, until now. Protector is actually book two in his Athenian series and I really would have liked to start with the first, The Gates of Athens, but I simply don’t have time to read much fiction these days.
You will all know who Conn Iggulden is since he’s one of the biggest names in histfic alongside the likes of Mr Cornwell and Simon Scarrow and, when you start reading Protector it hits you pretty quickly just WHY he’s held in such high regard. The writing is excellent, with many sentences popping out at you and catching the attention because they’re so well crafted. The same goes for the little snippets of historical detail that tell you a) the author really researched this period and b) he has the ability to effortlessly slide these into the text without it ever feeling like a dry history lesson. Rather, you feel enriched by his knowledge. Well, I did anyway. I love that kind of thing.
Similarly, we learn just how difficult it was, logistically, to keep a massive army on the move every day. One chapter starts with a description of the incredible amount of water needed to quench the thirst of thousands upon thousands of men and horses and it really does drive home the monumental task facing the leaders of the Persian army, or any other huge army. “Like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it,” is the line used to sum it up I believe and it’s really interesting for the author to take the focus away from the more obvious aspects of war – battles! – for a moment, to make the whole thing seem more realistic and less about heroism and simple skill with a blade.
That’s just one section, though, so don’t worry, there’s lots of fighting and killing to whet your thirst for violence! The sea battles at the start are very well described as are the fights we see on land later on. There’s a duel near the end which I really enjoyed as it ends a little differently than I expected but all the fight scenes are visceral and exciting.
The tale told here is massive in scope – you’re looking at armies numbering in hundreds of thousands! That’s quite a difference to many historical novels, especially my own which usually have warbands of a few hundred or even just a dozen. I think the author has made a choice in writing this book to make the whole thing feel BIG – there’s very little dialogue and we flit between characters without ever really seeing them as normal people. We’re TOLD about them, but there’s not many scenes of basic human interaction like men sitting drinking together, sharing jokes and songs, couples being intimate or the like. I can’t be sure, obviously, but I think Iggulden must have decided to avoid scenes like that – avoided making the people too minutely detailed – because he wanted to focus on the greater overall picture. These events were momentous and we do get a vivid sense of how incredibly powerful these nations were. Sparta’s incredible fighting prowess, Persia’s sheer numbers and ambition, and Greek cunning and resilience.
One issue I had with all this, however, is the fact there’s just so much prose. I like reading dialogue (unless we’re talking about an HP Lovecraft story) and I felt Protector could have used more. I missed a sense of camaraderie between the characters and it’s a very long book to have so much unbroken text. I mean, I’ve just opened the book at random to look and chapter 28 has no dialogue at all. Like I say, I believe this must have been a decision the author took on purpose and I think it certainly works in terms of imparting a sense of the enormous scale of this conflict – this novel is about PEOPLES rather than PEOPLE – but I think it took me longer to finish the book as a result.
With that gripe out of the way, I have to say I enjoyed Protector, it is truly epic, and I expect fans of the aforementioned Scarrow and Cornwell will too, especially if this historical period interests them. Might be best to start with the first book in the series though!
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