Take two Northern barbarian princes and place them in 5th century BC Athens at the time when Darius of Persia is about to teach the pesky Athenians a lesson and you have yourself the makings of a good story. If you can write as well as Jack England can you have the makings of a terrific story.
After a series of adventures and misadventures, the Anglanders Luke and his brother Hal find themselves caught up in the Athenian resistance to the ambitions of the Persian Empire under its ruler Darius. The story starts at a quick pace with the capture, escape and journey southwards of our heroes and gets even quicker as they become involved in the Greek resistance. The climax of the book is the Battle of Marathon. The description of the military preparations for the battle is masterly and the description of the battle itself is gripping, conveying the strategic complexities, horror and thrill of the fight without ever losing sight of the fact that in the end it is real flesh and blood people who are the actors in the drama. It is particularly noteworthy that the villains of the piece are portrayed as real people and not comic-book caricatures.
Within the covers of an wonderfully exciting adventure story, England manages to make some points about matters of perennial interest to us all: about freedom ("The fight for freedom is every man's fight, Luke, no matter where you were born"), the perennial temptation of tyranny ("Once a man succumbs to the pleasures of ordering others around, Hal, the vice always grows stronger over time. This is unlike most other vices, which fade away with age"), about the parasitic and self-destructive nature of empire ("He [the would-be emperor] needs to suck in ever more wealth to keep the whole show moving. His armies and fleets consume silver and gold by the ton. Without the conquest of new territories, those unleashed forces would soon turn in and destroy him instead") and, in words, that have a distinctly contemporary ring, about the dangers of democracy in which ("Different aspiring tyrants buy power with votes, with each freeman choosing their favourite candidate for the position of caretaker-king. The tyrant with the most freemen behind him wins the contest. They usually do this by promising to rob one group of votes on behalf of all the other groups of voters. Soon, it all blends into one melting pot, and everyone is being robbed by everyone else, with two similar-sized voting groups who end up taking turns to steal from each other, with their secretly co-operating leaders getting ever-richer in the process")
This is a novel however and not a treatise on political philosophy in fictional form. Athens, its leaders, its citizens, Luke, his comrades, his lovers--all are brought vividly to life. Life at sea, the sounds and the smells of the marketplace and the terror and exhilaration of battle come bursting through the prose.
If you enjoy this book as much as I did you'll be glad to know that this is just the first of a series and that there is more to come. I, for one, can't wait.