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Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Last of the Amazons

Last of the Amazons: A Novel by Steven Pressfield

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful:

July 21, 2002

"Last of the Amazons" while better than the prior Pressfield novel, "Tides of War", still falls short of "Gates of Fire". The biggest problem, in my opinion is that "Last of the Amazons" fails to truly capture the spirit of a great story taken from Greek mythology.

The story is that the Greek king Theseus travels east to around the Black Sea where he encounters the Amazon, a society of warrior women. The queen of the Amazons Antiope (or Hippolyta) and Theseus fall in love and she accompanies him back to Athens. The Amazons then march west and declare war on Athens, forcing the Greek defenders to take cover in the Rock, an old stronghold in the city. During the battle, Antiope sacrifices her own life to save Theseus and Athens. The Amazons are driven off, but the loss of the love of his life destroys Theseus from within over the next couple decades.

Now that's a rough summation of the legend, and more or less Pressfield sticks to it. The problem is that his telling of the story is from such indirect points of view that he never gets to the heart of the story: the affair between Theseus and Antiope. Instead, Pressfield's 2nd and 3rd hand narrations focus on the crumbling state of Amazonian society. And much of it deals twenty years later with Athenians chasing after an Amazon warrior who murdered three Greeks. I never really bought into that story, perhaps in part because so little is known of the Amazons. It's hard for me to care about the fall of a society that may not have existed, but a good love story is universal.

Having read Pressfield's three books dealing with the Greeks, "Gates of Fire" stands out as the best to me, because Pressfield does what he does best. That is, to detail the struggles of ancient combat from the "everyman" point of view, soldiers who are not heroes, but common infantrymen. There are flashes of that in "Last of the Amazons" during the siege of Athens, where Pressfield talks about the rigors of ancient infantry combat.

However, the problem I had with the siege of Athens in the book is that the Greeks were such incompetents at fighting it seemed implausible that they managed to win. In fact, it was only through the heroics of Antiope and betrayal by allies of the Amazons that Athens won. I already knew who was going to win, but during the battle I kept wondering, "how are these clowns going to get it together enough to win?" Don't get me wrong, it's not like I wanted overblown heroics with each Greek killing a hundred of the enemy, but it would have been nice if they at some point didn't seem like a bunch of bozos.

At any rate, I think a lot of people like this book because they haven't been spoiled by "The Bull From the Sea" by Mary Renault. I read that book in high school and I think it does a much better job of focusing on the story of Theseus and Antiope. I think after reading and enjoying that book, Pressfield's effort failed to make as much of an impression on me. "Last of the Amazons" is worth reading just for the great battles, but I'd also recommend checking out Renault's "The King Must Die" and "Bull From the Sea". Even though they are rather old, I think they still hold up.

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