One of the premiere writers of historical fiction from the last century was Mary Renault. Her area of expertise was ancient Greece; through her writing, she was able to encapsulate the myriad aspects of everyday life from that time period, across a variety of protagonists. Books like The Last of the Wine and The Mask of Apollo are firmly set in and around the Golden Age, while her Alexander trilogy shifts the focus into the Hellenic period. Renault also dabbled in quasi-historical fiction, much like her contemporary Robert Graves. She wrote a duology entitled The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea that chronicles the life and times of the mythical Athenian king, Theseus. This pair of books (to me) is representative of Renault at her finest. She utilizes just enough history to make the end Minoan Bronze Age she is writing about plausible, while at the same time spinning a fine tale, brimming with adventure, intrigue, betrayal and subtle intersections with the divine. Flash forward several decades; Steven Pressfield’s second book, Gates of Fire, drops onto the historical fiction scene like a bomb, recounting the battle of Thermopylae from the soldier’s eye view in all its raw and vivid detail. Once again, the classical Greek world becomes the focal point of well written and engaging historical fiction. Pressfield followed up Gates of Fire with Tides of War, focusing on the morally ambiguous noble Alcibiades and his part in the Athenian Sicilian expedition. His fourth novel, Last of the Amazons, delves directly into Renault (and Graves) territory, a quasi-historical, centered on the war between the Athenians with the fabled Amazons.
The Last of the Amazons takes place a generation prior to the Trojan War, the date being approximately 1250 B.C.E. This story is an extrapolation from Plutarch’s account of the besiegement of Athens by a horde of Scythians and Amazons during the reign of the mythical King Theseus. At the crux of this conflict lies the fact that Antiope, the Amazonian queen, absconded from her subjects and homeland to live out her days within the walls of a city with Theseus. Pressfield does some ingenious world building in his depiction of Amazon culture. Formally known as the tal Kyrte, the ‘free people’, these women warriors, hail from in and around Scythia and the Wildlands, just above the Black Sea. The tal Kyrte are a matriarchal society, bound together as lovers and fighters. In addition to being a matriarchy, the tal Kyrte, much like their cultural neighbors, the Scythians, are equestrians beyond compare. The author portrays them as a sort of nature worshiping hybrid of Mongols and Comanche with a touch of Howard’s mounted Picts from the Pre-Cataclysmic Age. They utilize the pelekus, the double bladed war axe along with the javelin and Cimmerian bow with deadly efficiency. And while we are on the subject of Robert E. Howard, it is accurate to state that the driving force behind this novel is the clash of two diametrically opposed cultures, or to state it in Howardian terms, civilization versus barbarism. This theme has reared its head again and again in the works of REH, from the Conan stories to Bran Mak Morn, last Pictish king pitted against the civilized Romans and to a lesser degree, the struggles of King Kull, a barbarian of Atlantis, now the ruler of the highly civilized (or as REH would argue, decadent) and vastly ancient kingdom of Valusia. The tal Kyrte have no cities to speak of. They are a mounted, yurt dwelling people traversing the plains along Lake Maeotis (now known as the Sea of Azov). The perceived betrayal of the tal Kyrte by Antiope lies in the fact that this nomadic queen, whose people live in pragmatic balance with the natural order, would go off to live in a world where not only are women subservient to men, but they live removed from nature, behind walls of stone and within permanent structures. Eleuthera, triple mate to the queen, swears vengeance against this Athenian affront and musters several thousand like minded, mounted warriors.
I believe that Renault is technically a better writer than Pressfield. Her prose is highly fluid and has a poetic air about it. Yet for sheer reading excitement, Pressfield can’t be beat. He structures his stories in such a way that throw you in the midst of the action. He makes you feel the victories and defeats of his characters (that are usually soldiers), the loss of stalwart companions and the terror, confusion and bloodshed of hand to hand combat that was de rigueur in Antiquity. Certain plot threads of Last of the Amazons seem as though they were pulled straight from an issue of Weird Tales or Golden Fleece. While journeying to the Amazon Sea, the Athenians are ambushed by a primitive, warlike race of cannibals no less. Pressfield states; “The savages came out of nowhere, seizing three of our mates on the strand. Theseus ordered attack, but as soon as the ships entered the cove, small craft by the hundreds launched by the tree line, slinging darts and fire lances. These were Saii and Androphagi, Man-Eaters. The struggle surpassed in grisliness all heretofore, hand to hand along every foot of gunwale, our comrades bashing the skulls of slough-dwellers seeking to clamber aboard, while their mates, axe wielding and mantled in animal skins hacked at both oars and hull timbers. There is this to a clash with savages: they attack not in discipline or silence, but hooting and howling. It goes without saying they are shitfaced. They’re having fun!”(p. 94) This passage is certainly reminiscent of that kinetic, breakneck pace that was exemplified by the pulp writers of old.
Although he wrote two other novels that take place during the time of Alexander, The Virtues of War and The Afghan Campaign, in recent years, Pressfield has shifted focus in his historical fiction output. He has produced novels set firmly in the conflicts of the Twentieth Century (The Second World War and The Six Day War). He has even written a near future thriller, The Profession, which concerns mercenary armies with parallels to the fall of the Roman Republic. These aforementioned novels have that distinct Pressfield tone, that soldier’s-eye-view of conflict. Yet, to a certain degree, to me, they fall somewhat short. By no means is this due to the author’s inability to tell an engaging story, far from it. However, I for one miss the milieu of the Ancient World with Pressfield acting as our learned tour guide. His impact on Classical historical fiction is just as important as Renault’s, Graves’ and McCullough’s. Fans of sword and sorcery fiction and adventure fiction in general would be well served in reading his works, especially Last of the Amazons. Like Renault’s Theseus novels, it strikes that nice balance between early recorded history and mythology. And although he is a writer that walked the same path as Renault and Graves, I feel Pressfield also has a modicum of Robert E. Howard in his authorial voice as well. To illustrate the point, I will leave off with another meaty quote that takes place at the climax of a battle between the two champions, the Athenian king and the revenge driven tal Kyrte war leader. This scene is very Homeric in nature and captures the danger and intensity that Pressfield brings to the page. It is also in my view, very Howardian, reminiscent of the finale of the Conan story, ‘The Scarlet Citadel’.