Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Review of the book Leonidas: A Heroic King by Helena Schrader

Leonidas of Sparta: A Heroic King is the third installment in the trilogy covering the life of the famous Spartan king, written by Helena Schrader. I have not had a chance to read the first two books but jumped at the chance to read this one because I wanted to see how Helena would approach the Battle of Thermopylae.

Helena Schrader graduated with honors in History from the University of Michigan and has earned a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg. She has published several books since 1993, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the former are several historical novels including six on ancient Sparta. She maintains a blog titled Sparta Reconsidered.

I approached A Heroic King as a person knowledgeable on the subject matter but curious about how the author would weave fact and fiction together. Would the story be convincing? Spartan names take some getting used to and I found myself struggling through the first two dozen pages as I tried to get to know the many characters – both historically familiar and unfamiliar. Knowledge of the vocabulary of Sparta was certainly helpful during this early part of the read.

Once the names were locked in, things moved along at a fine rhythm. There were many wonderful scenes -- Leonidas' election, the sacrificial ambassador’s trip to see Xerxes, and Gorgo’s shopping trip in Athens, to name a few. For a historical novel to be successful, you have to feel seamlessly transported back in time by the author. Then you can live the story and absorb the history along the way. Helena has successfully met this requirement by accurately capturing the lives and experiences of the people of Lacedaemon.

The Battle of Thermopylae was riveting – not mere choreography like the movie 300, but real tension created by 300 men trying to survive but also prepared to die. The reader has a first row seat as the realization of no escape transforms Leonidas and his men into determined heroes.

In sum, The Heroic King is a brilliantly written novel that gives life to one of the great cultures of history. Its mixture of drama and adventure can carry the reader forward at whatever pace he or she may desire.

My only concern in recommending the novel is for the reader who knows nothing of Sparta – whether they will have the perseverance to work through the new vocabulary. Like the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, I say “Don’t judge this novel by its first two dozen pages”. Acclimate yourself and move on to a great adventure.

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