In real time (not site time, when I post things far in advance), this is my first book of 2023, which I had every intention of making a nonfiction, science book after all of the fiction and history books that have been filling my reviews recently. When The Lion showed up in my library, though, I realized that historical fiction was in my future, instead. Conn Iggulden’s historical fiction is always enjoyable, and this particular one is made more interesting by its time period, since I have read so much writing actually coming from the time period in which The Lion is set.
The Lion is officially a sequel to his earlier book detailing the battle at Marathon, although as long as you have a basic knowledge of the wars between Greece and Persia there is little need to read the whole ‘series’ in order or at all – The Lion stands well on its own. It captures one of the most significant time periods in the history of the western world, the pact that helped forge the Hellenic peoples into a single culture, akin for ‘Greece’ to the moment when the American states began to think of themselves not as independent sovereignties but as part of the United States of America, but probably even more significant for history.
My own reading of that time period (Aeschylus, for instance, makes an appearance in The Lion) makes this book even more interesting, but simultaneously can render it a little dull. The characters have to be more compelling, and in this case not all of them were. There are some excellent moments, but I wish that they were followed through on just a little longer. While I understand where he chose to end the book, I think going just a little longer would have offered a more satisfying denouement.
I also wish that he was writing from the Persian perspective. Dan Carlin discusses this issue in his podcast series King of Kings – because the Greeks are the ones who wrote things down, it is from their perspective that we learn almost everything we know about this time period and the interactions between Greece and Persia. It is precisely that lack that makes me think it would be more interesting to read from the Persian perspective, who had an empire so vast that their dealings with the Greeks likely amounted to, for them, little more than a sideshow. Plus, while the Greeks secured numerous impressive military victories, the Persians succeeded in undermining their unity through more subtle forms of diplomacy, the influence of which Iggulden implied his next book would address.
Historical fiction is full of inference, guesswork, and plain fiction, but it provides a dramatization of history that can be more engaging than just reading about history. It makes it come alive, and Iggulden is thorough about describing where he was forced to deviate from the historical record. Pairing a book like this with a book like Herodotus’s Histories makes for one of my favorite ways to learn about a given period and people. I think you will enjoy The Lion.