Michael Joseph | 2021 (13 May) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 480 BC and the mighty Xerxes, King of Persia, has won a historic victory over the heroes of Greece and Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae. Now he stands in Athens and watches the city burn to the ground. Athens is largely empty, its citizens have been evacuated, an epic undertaking, to the nearby island of Salamis and now the generals and leaders of Athens – Themistocles, Xanthippus and Cimon chief among them – must defend each and everyone of them in a sea battle. The Battle of Salamis lasts for days and the Greeks must use cunning every bit as much as its ships, oarsmen and warriors to take on Persia. But this won’t end it. The enemies will meet in battle again as Pericles, the son of Xanthippus, grows to manhood surrounded by war, death and a hunger for vengeance.
Conn Iggulden is one of the finest writers of historical fiction that you can read. He particularly excels when he takes on the great wars of the ancient and medieval worlds – the scramble for power after the assassination of Caesar, the Wars of the Roses – and Protector is the second novel in a series that covers the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. It follows directly on from The Gates of Athens and builds on our investment in the people of Athens and Sparta, an uneasy but vital alliance, as they strive to fight off a relentless enemy whose army greatly outnumbers their own. We’ve watched them win and lose famous battles. Themistocles and Xanthippus are not friends – there is more hatred than liking between them, they are political rivals – but they have come together and the prickly relationship between them, and between them and the Spartans, has been absolutely fascinating to follow. There has also been the more human and emotional side of spending time with Xanthippus’s wife Agariste and their children, including Pericles. It is the families, after all, who would endure slavery or death if their warrior husbands and fathers fail and it is the women who would kill their own children if it came to it.
It is for this reason that I think you should read The Gate of Athens first. Protector is a fine novel but there is too much going on for there to be time to form an attachment to its characters. The reader will bring that from the former novel.
Conn Iggulden is second to none when it comes to battle scenes and the depiction of the sea battle of Salamis is absolutely brilliant. He perfectly captures the confusion, the mighty effort, the heroism and brutality, the pure horror and fear of it all, especially for the rowers. As the oarsmen literally row themselves to death, Greek warriors take their place. We also see the strategy of the battle and watch Themistocles emerge as Athens’ great hero. And this isn’t the only battle in the novel, which also features the famous land battle at Plataea. The pages fly by as the author catches up the reader in these exhilarating events.
Themistocles is an extraordinary character. He does his best to be very difficult to like but he is such an interesting man. There is a sense, though, that Xanthippus is the true hero in Iggulden’s mind and it’s Xanthippus and his family who receive the warmest treatment. I really enjoyed reading about Pericles and his relationship with his siblings. I knew a little about Pericles the famous statesman but I had no idea about his childhood in war and it’s extremely involving.
If I had an issue with Protector, it would be its similarities to The Gates of Athens. There is almost a repetition, with the same characters – Athenian heroes – squabbling amongst themselves while uniting against mighty Persia in another round of battles. But there is a development in Pericles, who I suspect might be the main figure for the series as a whole, and he promises much for the third novel. But the highlight of Protector is an outstanding one, among the very best in all of the author’s novels – the Battle of Salamis.
This conflict took place about 2,500 years ago, such a long time ago, and yet it is well-known to history – the underdog Greeks fighting for survival against overwhelming odds. The battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea continue to resonate but Conn Iggulden brings new life to them and the men who fought them and the depth of his knowledge into the period as well as ancient warfare is resounding. The author has a gift of making each historical period he touches fascinating to the reader and this new Athenian series is no different. He is a great storyteller.
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)
The Falcon of Sparta
The Gates of Athens