The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

Michael Joseph | 2018 (3 May) | 433p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn IgguldenIt is 401 BC. Darius, the King of Kings of Persia is dead, succeeded by his son Artaxerxes, who rules an empire that stretches from the Aegean to North India. He has kings and their armies in his power. He is king of over fifty million subjects. Every person brought into his presence must prostrate themselves before him, their faces in the dust. But there is one man who stands in Artaxerxes’ way – his younger brother Cyrus, the commander of their father’s armies. Cyrus only just escaped execution on Artaxerxes’ command when Darius was on his deathbed. Cyrus is now determined to make Artaxerxes pay. He will seize the throne and he will do it at the head of a mercenary army of 10,000 Greeks, at the core of which will be his Spartans, the most feared and resolute of all warriors.

After several books in which Conn Iggulden brought the Middle Ages and the Anglo-Saxon world to life, with his brilliant Wars of the Roses series followed by a novel on Saint Dunstan, this superb author now returns to the ancient world. For his inspiration he has taken Xenophon’s Anabasis, otherwise known as The Persian Expedition, which tells the extraordinary tale of the march of the ten thousand, one of whom was the Greek, Xenophon, who plays a critical role in The Falcon of Sparta.

The Falcon of Sparta is a triumph. I can even go so far as to say that it is the finest book that Conn Iggulden has written, which is quite a thing to say considering the quality of the books that he has given us over the years. Ancient Greek history isn’t my favourite topic for historical fiction but I put all of that to one side because this is a Conn Iggulden novel and I was gripped by the quality of the prose and the tension of an extraordinary opening scene between Darius and his young son Artaxerxes – I was hooked by the end of the very first page and that’s no exaggeration.

This is beautiful, descriptive writing and it’s supported by the author’s incredible insight, not only into the period but also into the motives of these historical figures. He understands what drives them. It’s an interpretation, after all so little is known about most of the characters in the novel, but it is wholly believable and consistent. I’m always amazed at how Conn Iggulden can do this with such a broad range of historical periods and figures. He takes us to the heart of the matter and wraps it up in tension, drama and the fiercest of action. He is a master storyteller and we see this at its very best in The Falcon of Sparta.

I’m reluctant to give anything away about what happens in The Falcon of Sparta beyond the bare bones of the opening paragraph of this review. This is because so much happens that is shocking and so engrossing. I’d even recommend that you don’t read the inside sleeve of the book. If you go into it not knowing what happens then you will be all the more spellbound by it. So much is invested in these characters, especially Prince Cyrus, his Spartan general Clearchus, and Tissaphernes. What these characters all go through is incredible. The nobility of the Spartans is actually quite frightening in its ruthlessness but Clearchus in particular is almost superhuman in his dedication to what drives him on.

The depiction of the Persian empire and its customs is riveting, especially the way in which tyranny and abuse is passed down through the levels of society. There are times when Cyrus wants nothing more than the simple if extreme life of a Spartan warrior but there’s no escape from his heritage and he, too, can be every bit as harsh as Artaxerxes and their father Darius. This is a throne built upon fratricide after all.

The descriptions of life on the march, especially over mountains controlled by lawless and brutal tribes, are fascinating and so well drawn. The battle scenes are thrilling, intensified by the author’s detailed knowledge about all aspects of warfare around the year 400 BC. The Falcon of Sparta is certainly informative but it is also extremely exciting.

I struggle to find the words to describe how magnificent this new standalone novel by Conn Iggulden is. The March of the Ten Thousand is an extraordinary tale from history, the perfect subject for a novel, and Iggulden breathes life into every step of it.

Other reviews
The Blood of Gods (Emperor V)
Stormbird (Wars of the Roses I)
Trinity (Wars of the Roses II)
Bloodline (Wars of the Roses III)
Ravenspur: Rise of the Tudors (Wars of the Roses IV)

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