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Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

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Thousands of years ago, Herodotus and Plutarch immortalized Spartan society in their histories; but today, little is left of the ancient city or the social structure of this momentous culture. One of the few antiquarian marks of the civilization that has survived lies scores of miles away from Sparta, at a narrow Greek mountain pass called Thermopylae. It was here that three hundred of Sparta's finest warriors held back the invading millions of the Persian empire and valiantly gave their lives in the selfless ...
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Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

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Overview

Thousands of years ago, Herodotus and Plutarch immortalized Spartan society in their histories; but today, little is left of the ancient city or the social structure of this momentous culture. One of the few antiquarian marks of the civilization that has survived lies scores of miles away from Sparta, at a narrow Greek mountain pass called Thermopylae. It was here that three hundred of Sparta's finest warriors held back the invading millions of the Persian empire and valiantly gave their lives in the selfless service of democracy and freedom. A simple engraved stone marks their burial ground. Narrated by the sole survivor of the epic battle - a squire in the Spartan heavy infantry - Gates of Fire is a depiction of one man's indoctrination into the Spartan way of life and death, and of the legendary men and women who gave the culture an immortal gravity. Culminating in the electrifying and horrifying epic battle, Gates of Fire weaves history, mystery, and heartbreaking romance into a literary page-turner that brings the Homeric tradition into the 21st century.

Tells the story of tthe Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when 300 warriors of Sparta held back an overwhelming number of rampaging soldiers from the Persian Empire for six days before being wiped out.

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Editorial Reviews

Nelson DeMille
An incredibly gripping, moving, and literate work of art.
USA Today
Richard Bernstein
Gripping and swashbuckling...an excitingromanticstar-crossed story. —The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pressfield's first novel, The Legend of Bagger Vance, was about golf, but here he puts aside his putter and picks up sword and shield as he cleverly and convincingly portrays the clash between Greek hoplites and Persian heavy infantry in the most heroic confrontation of the Hellenic Age: the battle of Thermopylae ("the Hot Gates") in 480 B.C. The terrifying spectacle of classical infantry battle becomes vividly clear in his epic treatment of the Greeks' magnificent last stand against the invading Persians. Driven to understand the courage and sacrifice of his Greek foes, the Persian king, Xerxes, compels Xeones, a captured Greek slave, to explain why the Greeks would give their lives to fight against overwhelming odds. Xeones' tale covers his years of training and adventure as the loyal and devoted servant of Dienekes, a noble Spartan soldier, and he describes the six-day ordeal during which a few hundred Greeks held off thousands of Persian spears and arrows, until a Greek traitor led the Persians to an alternate route. Rich with historical detail, hot action and crafty storytelling, Pressfield's riveting story reveals the social and political framework of Spartan life--ending with the hysteria and brutality of the spear-thrusting, shield-bashing clamor that defined a Spartan's relationship with his family, community, country and fellow warriors.
Library Journal
On a memorial stone placed at the ancient battlefield of Thermopylae are the words, "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie." Those simple words end and encapsulate this brilliant and brutal epic tale. Beginning at the training fields of Sparta, Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance) ushers the reader through the climactic Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.E, fought by the combined armies of Sparta, Athens, and their allies against the invading soldiers of Persia. Narrated by the sole survivor of the battle at the "Hot Gates," in which 300 Spartans, hundreds of their allies, and tens of thousands of Persians died, this work portrays the men and women of ancient Sparta in intimate, dynamic detail. Pressfield weaves a fascinating tale of valor, fear, comradeship, and a courage that takes a handful of warriors beyond human frailty into immortality. An unforgettable novel. -- Jane Baird, Anchorage Municipal Libraries, Alaska
William Shepherd
This is excellent fiction woven into historical and archaeological reconstruction... Gates of Fire is enjoyable at many levels. It is both a gripping human story of adventure, friendship, loyalty, heroism and love, and a fascinating compilation of historical fact with some speculation, which in the absence of evidence is always at least plausible...Osprey readers interested in the ancient world and key players in military history must add this book to their specialist shelves.
Osprey Military Journal
Kirkus Reviews
A triumph in historical fiction best describes this stirring account of the famous battle of Thermopylae, told by the lone survivor before succumbing to his wounds, in a logical follow-up to Pressfield's Homeric take on golf, The Legend of Bagger Vance (1995). The young squire Xeones is pulled from beneath a burned battle wagon when the carnage finally ends at the narrow mountain pass where, in 480 b.c., three hundred Spartans and a small allied force fought off, for a full week, the two-million-man army of Persian king Xerxes. Xeones is kept alive by the king's own physicians in the hope that he'll tell His Majesty all there is to know about those sublimely disciplined warriors who accomplished so great a victory. In a series of interviews recorded by the royal historian, Xeones recounts his own origins: forced to flee, newly orphaned, when his own city was sacked, he lived hand-to-mouth in the mountains until deciding to go to Sparta in order to learn all there was to know about defending himself. As he recalls Xerxes' army rolling inexorably into Athens, burning the city after a token defense, the survivor describes the decades of hard training endured by every Spartan male, and also the contacts he had with his youthful sparring partner, the silver-throated, sensitive Alexandros, and with the fair-minded, modest Dienekes (whose squire he would become). But by the time Xeones comes to the crux of his story, involving the mighty battle itself and the heroic actions of his comrades-in-arms, things have started to go awry again for the Persians. Although he will soon join his friends in death, Xeones lives long enough to know that their sacrifice was not in vain. While theromantic interests are somewhat stilted, the man-to-man and mano-a-mano elements are all superb, with a fine, elegiac tone. to be expected, frankly, given the subjectþenhancing equally the historical details and the human touches.
From the Publisher
"Steven Pressfield brings the battle of Thermopylae to brilliant life, and he does for that war what Charles Frazier did for the Civil War in Cold Mountain."
--Pat Conroy

"Gripping and swashbuckling...an exciting, romantic, star-crossed story."
--The New York Times

"An incredibly gripping, moving, and literate work of art. Rarely does an author manage to re-create a moment in history with such mastery, authority, and psychological insight."
--Nelson DeMille

"A novel that is intricate and arresting and, once begun, almost impossible to put down."
--Daily News

"A timeless epic of man and war...Pressfield has created a new classic deserving of a place beside the very best of the old."
--Stephen Coonts

From the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553580532
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 51,299
  • Product dimensions: 4.19 (w) x 6.88 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Pressfield is the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. a mystical golf novel currently under option with Robert Redford and Jake Eberts (Dances with Wolves, Driving Miss Daisy) for feature film adaptation.  He makes his home in Malibu, California.

From the Paperback edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    Third day of Tashritu, Fifth Year of His Majesty's Accession, south of the Lokrian border, the Army of the Empire having continued its advance unopposed into central Greece, establishing an encampment opposite the easter fall of Mount Parnassus, the sum of whose watercourses, as numerous others before upon the march from Asia, failed and was drunk dry by the troops and horses.

    The following initial interview took place in His Majesty's campaign tent, three hours after sunset, the evening meal having been concluded and all court business transacted. Field marshals, advisors, household guards, the Magi and secretaries being present, the detaining officers were instructed to produce the Greek. The captive was brought in upon a litter, eyes cloth-bound so as to dissanction sight of His Majesty. The Magus performed the incantation and purification, permitting the man to speak within the hearing of His Majesty. The prisoner was instructed not to speak directly toward the Royal Presence but to address himself to the officers of the household guard, the Immortals, stationed upon His Majesty's left.

    The Greek was directed by Orontes, captain of the Immortals, to identify himself. He responded that his name was Xeones the son of Skamandridas of Astakos, a city in Akarnania. The man Xeones stated that he wished first to thank His Majesty for preserving his life and to express his gratitude for and admiration of the skill of the Royal Surgeon's staff. Speaking from his litter, and yet struggling with weakness of breath from several as-yet-unhealed wounds of the lungs and thoracic organs, he offered the following disclaimer to His Majesty, stating that he was unfamiliar with the Persian style of discourse and further stood unfortunately lacking in the gifts of poesy and story-spinning. He declared that the tale he could tell would not be of generals or kings, for the political machinations of the great, he said, he was and had been in no position to observe. He could only relate the story as he himself had lived it and witnessed it, from the vantage of a youth and squire of the heavy infantry, a servant of the battle train. Perhaps, the captive declared, His Majesty would discover little of interest in this narrative of the ordinary warriors, the "men in the line," as the prisoner expressed it.

    His Majesty, responding through Orontes, Captain of the Immortals, asserted to the contrary that this was precisely the tale he wished most to hear. His Majesty was, He declared, already possessed of abundant intelligence of the intriguings of the great; what He desired most to hear was this, "the infantryman's tale."

    What kind of men were these Spartans, who in three days had slain before His Majesty's eyes no fewer than twenty thousand of His most valiant warriors? Who were these foemen, who had taken with them to the house of the dead ten, or as some reports said, as many as twenty for every one of their own fallen? What were they like as men? Whom did they love? What made them laugh? His Majesty knew they feared death, as all men. By what philosophy did their minds embrace it? Most to the point, His Majesty said, He wished to acquire a sense of the individuals themselves, the real flesh-and-blood men whom He had observed from above the battle. field, but only indistinctly, from a distance, as indistinguishable identities concealed within the blood- and gore-begrimed carapaces of their helmets and armor.

    Beneath his cloth-bound eyes, the prisoner bowed and offered a prayer of thanksgiving to some one of his gods. The story His Majesty wished to hear, he asserted, was the one he could truly tell, and the one he most wished to.

    It must of necessity be his own story, as well as that of the warriors he had known. Would His Majesty be patient with this? Nor could the telling confine itself exclusively to the battle, but must proceed from events antecedent in time, for only in this light and from this perspective would the lives and actions of the warriors His Majesty observed at Thermopylae be given their true meaning and significance.

    His Majesty, field marshals, generals and advisors being satisfied, the Greek was given a bowl of wine and honey for his thirst and asked to commence where he pleased, to tell the story in whatever manner he deemed appropriate. The man, Xeones, bowed once upon his litter and began:

    I had always wondered what it felt like to die.

    There was an exercise we of the battle train practiced when we served as punching bags for the Spartan heavy infantry. It was called the Oak because we took our positions along a line of oaks at the edge of the plain of Otona, where the Spartiates and the Gentleman-Rankers ran their field exercises in fall and winter. We would line up ten deep with body-length wicker shields braced upon the earth and they would hit us, the shock troops, coming across the fiat in line of battle, eight deep, at a walk, then a pace, then a trot and finally a dead run. The shock of their interleaved shields was meant to knock the breath out of you, and it did. It was like being hit by a mountain. Your knees, no matter how braced you held them, buckled like saplings before an earthslide; in an instant all courage fled our hearts; we were rooted up like dried stalks before the ploughman's blade.

    That was how it felt to die. The weapon which slew me at Thermopylae was an Egyptian hoplite spear, driven in beneath the plexus of the ribcage. But the sensation was not what one would have anticipated, not being pierced but rather slammed, like we sparring fodder felt beneath the oaks.

    I had imagined that the dead would be detached. That they would look upon life with the eyes of objective wisdom. But the experience proved the opposite. Emotion ruled. It seemed nothing remained but emotion. My heart ached and broke as never it could on earth. Loss encompassed me with a searing, all-mastering pain. I saw my wife and children, my dear cousin Diomache, she whom I loved. I saw Skamandridas, my father, and Eunike, my mother, Bruxieus, Dekton and "Suicide," names which mean nothing to His Majesty to hear, but which to me were dearer than life and now, dying, dearer still.

    Away they flew. Away I flew from them.

    I was keenly conscious of the comrades-in-arms who had fallen with me. A bond surpassing by a hundredfold that which I had known in life bound me to them. I felt a sense of inexpressible relief and realized that I had feared, more than death, separation from them. I apprehended that excruciating war survivor's torment, the sense of isolation and self-betrayal experienced by those who had elected to cling yet to breath when their comrades had let loose their grip.

    That state which we call life was over.

    I was dead.

    And yet, titanic as was that sense of loss, there existed a keener one which I now experienced and felt my brothers-in-arms feeling with me. It was this.

    That our story would perish with us.

    That no one would ever know.

    I cared not for myself, for my own selfish or vainglorious purposes, but for them. For Leonidas, for Alexandros and Polynikes, for Arete bereft by her hearth and, most of all, for Dienekes. That his valor, his wit, his private thoughts that I alone was privileged to share, that these and all that he and his companions had achieved and suffered would simply vanish, drift away like smoke from a woodland fire, this was unbearable.

    We had reached the river now. We could hear with ears that were no longer ears and see with eyes that were no longer eyes the stream of Lethe and the hosts of the long-suffering dead whose round beneath the earth was at last drawing to a period. They were returning to life, drinking of those waters which would efface all memory of their existence here as shades.

    But we from Thermopylae, we were aeons away from drinking of Lethe's stream. We remembered.

    A cry which was not a cry but only the multiplied pain of the warriors' hearts, all feeling what I, too, felt, rent the baleful scene with unspeakable pathos.

    Then from behind me, if there can be such a thing as "behind" in that world where all directions are as one, came a glow of such sublimity that I knew, we all knew at once, it could be nothing but a god.

    Phoebus Far Darter, Apollo himself in war armor, moved there among the Spartiates and Thespaians. No words were exchanged; none were needed. The Archer could feel the men's agony and they knew without speech that he, warrior and physician, was there to succor it. So quickly that surprise was impossible I felt his eye turn toward me, me the last and least who could expect it, and then Dienekes himself was beside me, my master in life.

    I would be the one. The one to go back and speak. A pain beyond all previous now seized me. Sweet life itself, even the desperately sought chance to tell the tale, suddenly seemed unendurable alongside the pain of having to take leave of these whom I had come so to love.

    But again, before the god's majesty, no entreaty was possible.

    I saw another light, a sicklier, cruder, more coarse illumination, and knew that it was the sun. I was soaring back. Voices came to me through physical ears. Soldiers' speech, in Egyptian and Persian, and leather-gauntleted fists pulling me from beneath a sheaf of corpses.

    The Egyptian marines told me later that I had uttered the word lokas, which in their tongue meant "fuck," and they had laughed even as they dragged my shattered body out into the light of day.

    They were wrong. The word was Loxias--the Greek title of respect for Apollo the Cunning, or Apollo Crabwise, whose oracles arise ever elusive and oblique--and I was half crying to him, half cursing him for laying this terrible responsibility on me who had no gift to perform it.

    As poets call upon the Muse to speak through them, I croaked my inarticulate grunt to the Striker From Afar.

    If indeed you have elected me, Archer, then let your fine-fletched arrows spring from my bow. Lend me your voice, Far Darter. Help me to tell the tale.


Chapter Two

Thermopylae is a spa. The word in Greek means "hot gates," from the thermal springs and, as His Majesty knows, the narrow and precipitous defiles which form the only passages by which the site may be approached--in Greek, pylae or pylai, the East and West Gates.

    The Phokian Wall around which so much of the most desperate fighting took place was not constructed by the Spartans and their allies in the event, but stood in existence prior to the battle, erected in ancient times by the inhabitants of Phokis and Lokris as defense against the incursions of their northern neighbors, the Thessalians and Macedonians. The wall, when the Spartans arrived to take possession of the pass, stood in ruins. They rebuilt it.

    The springs and pass themselves are not considered by the Hellenes to belong to the natives of the area, but are open to all in Greece. The baths are thought to possess curative powers; in summer the site teems with visitors. His Majesty beheld the charm of the shaded groves and pool houses, the oak copse sacred to Amphiktyon and that pleasantly meandering path bounded by the Lion's Wall, whose stones are said to have been set in place by Herakles himself. Along this in peacetime are customarily arrayed the gaily colored tents and booths used by the vendors from Trachis, Anthela and Alpenoi to serve whatever adventurous pilgrims have made the trek to the mineral baths.

    There is a double spring sacred to Persephone, called the Skyllian fountain, at the foot of the bluff beside the Middle Gate. Upon this site the Spartans established their camp, between the Phokian Wall and the hillock where the final tooth-and-nail struggle took place. His Majesty knows how little drinking water is to hand from other sources in the surrounding mountains. The earth between the Gates is normally so parched and dust-blown that servants are employed by the spa to oil the walkways for the convenience of the bathers. The ground itself is hard as stone.

    His Majesty saw how swiftly that marble-hard clay was churned into muck by the contending masses of the warriors. I have never seen such mud and of such depth, whose moisture came only from the blood and terror-piss of the men who fought upon it.

    When the advance troops, the Spartan rangers, arrived at Thermopylae prior to the battle, a few hours before the main body which was advancing by forced march, they discovered, incredibly, two parties of spa-goers, one from Tiryns, the other from Halkyon, thirty in all, men and women, each in their separate precincts, in various states of undress. These pilgrims were startled, to say the least, by the sudden appearance in their midst of the scarlet-clad armored Skiritai, all picked men under thirty, chosen for speed of foot as well as prowess in mountain fighting. The rangers cleared the bathers and their attendant perfume vendors, masseurs, fig-cake and bread sellers, bath and oil girls, strigil boys and so forth (who had ample intelligence of the Persian advance but had thought that the recent down-valley storm had rendered the northern approaches temporarily impassable). The rangers confiscated all food, soaps, linens and medical accoutrements and in particular the spa tents, which later appeared so grimly incongruous, billowing festively above the carnage. The rangers reerected these shelters at the rear, in the Spartan camp beside the Middle Gate, intending them for use by Leonidas and his royal guard.

    The Spartan king, when he arrived, refused to avail himself of this shelter, deeming it unseemly. The Spartiate heavy infantry likewise rejected these amenities. The tents fell, in one of the ironies to which those familiar with war are accustomed, to the use of the Spartan helots, Thespaian, Phokian and Opountian Lokrian slaves and other attendants of the battle train who suffered wounds in the arrow and missile barrages. These individuals, too, after the second day refused to accept shelter. The brightly colored spa tents of Egyptian linen, now in tatters, came as His Majesty saw to protect only the beasts of transport, the mules and asses supporting the commissariat, who became terrorized by the sights and smells of the battle and could not be held by their teamsters. In the end the tents were torn to rags to bind the wounds of the Spartiates and their allies.

    When I say Spartiates, I mean the formal term in Greek, Spartiatai, which refers to Lakedaemonians of the superior class, full Spartans--the homoioi--Peers or Equals. None of the class called Gentleman-Rankers or of the perioikoi, the secondary Spartans of less than full citizenship, or those enlisted from the surrounding Lakedaemonian towns, fought at the Hot Gates, though toward the end when the surviving Spartiates became so few that they could no longer form a fighting front, a certain "leavening element," as Dienekes expressed it, of freed slaves, armor bearers and battle squires, was permitted to fill the vacated spaces.

    His Majesty may nonetheless take pride in knowing that his forces defeated the flower of Hellas, the cream of her finest and most valiant fighting men.

    As for my own position within the battle train, the explanation may require a certain digression, with which I hope His Majesty will be patient.

    I was captured at age twelve (or, more accurately, surrendered) as a heliokekaumenos, a Spartan term of derision which means literally "scorched by the sun." It referred to a type of nearly feral youth, burned black as Ethiopians by their exposure to the elements, with which the mountains abounded in those days preceding and following the first Persian War. I was cast originally among the Spartan helots, the serf class that the Lakedaemonians had created from the inhabitants of Messenia and Helos after they in centuries past had conquered and enslaved them. These husbandmen, however, rejected me because of certain physical impairments which rendered me useless for field labor. Also the helots hated and mistrusted any foreigner among them who might prove an informer. I lived a dog's life for most of a year before fate, luck or a god's hand delivered me into the service of Alexandros, a Spartan youth and protege of Dienekes. This saved my life. I was recognized at least ironically as a freeborn and, evincing such qualities of a wild beast as the Lakedaemonians found admirable, was elevated to the status of parastates pais, a sort of sparring partner for the youths enrolled in the agoge, the notorious and pitiless thirteen-year training regimen which turned boys into Spartan warriors.

    Every heavy infantryman of the Spartiate class travels to war attended by at least one helot. Enomotarchai, the platoon leaders, take two. This latter was Dienekes' station. It is not uncommon for an officer of his rank to select as his primary attendant, his battle squire, a freeborn foreigner or even a young mothax, a noncitizen or bastard Spartan still in agoge training. It was my fortune, for good or ill, to be chosen by my master for this post. I supervised the care and transport of his armor, maintained his kit, prepared his food and sleeping site, bound his wounds and in general performed every task necessary to leave him free to train and fight.

    My childhood home, before fate set me upon the road which found its end at the Hot Gates, was originally in Astakos in Akarnania, north of the Peloponnese, where the mountains look west over the sea toward Kephallinia and, beyond the horizon, to Sikelia and Italia.

    The island of Ithaka, home of Odysseus of lore, lay within sight across the straits, though I myself was never privileged to touch the hero's sacred soil, as a boy or later. I was due to make the crossing, a treat from my aunt and uncle, on the occasion of my tenth birthday. But our city fell first, the males of my clan were slaughtered and females sold into slavery, our ancestral land taken, and I cast out, alone save my cousin Diomache, without family or home, three days before the start of my tenth year to heaven, as the poet says.


Chapter Three

    We had a slave on my father's farm when I was a boy, a man named Bruxieus, though I hesitate to use the word "slave," because my father was more in Bruxieus' power than the other way round. We all were, particularly my mother. As lady of the house she refused to make the most trifling domestic decision--and many whose scope far exceeded that--without first securing Bruxieus' advice and approval. My father deferred to him on virtually all matters, save politics within the city. I myself was completely under his spell.

    Bruxieus was an Elean. He had been captured by the Argives in battle when he was nineteen. They blinded him with fiery pitch, though his knowledge of medicinal salves later restored at least a poor portion of his sight. He bore on his brow the ox-horn slave brand of the Argives. My father acquired him when he was past forty, as compensation for a shipment of hyacinth oil lost at sea.

    As nearly as I could tell, Bruxieus knew everything. He could pull a bad tooth without clove or oleander. He could carry fire in his bare hands. And, most vital of all to my boy's regard, he knew every spell and incantation necessary to ward off bad luck and the evil eye.

    Bruxieus' only weakness as I said was his vision. Beyond ten feet the man was blind as a stump. This was a source of secret, if guilty, pleasure to me because it meant he needed a boy with him at all times to see. I spent weeks never leaving his side, not even to sleep, since he insisted on watching over me, slumbering always on a sheepskin at the foot of my little bed.

    In those days it seemed there was a war every summer, I remember the city's drills each spring when the planting was done. My father's armor would be brought down from the hearth and Bruxieus would oil each rim and joint, rewarp and reshaft the "two spears and two spares" and replace the cord and leather gripware within the hoplon's oak and bronze sphere. The drills took place on a broad plain west of the potters' quarter, just below the city walls. We boys and girls brought sunshades and fig cakes, scrapped over the best viewing positions on the wall and watched our fathers drill below us to the trumpeters' calls and the beat of the battle drummers.

    This year of which I speak, the dispute of note was over a proposal made by that session's prytaniarch, an estate owner named Onaximandros. He wanted each man to efface the clan or individual crest on his shield and replace it with a uniform alpha, for our city Astakos. He argued that Spartan shields all bore a proud lambda, for their country, Lakedaemon. Fine, came the derisive response, but we're no Lakedaemonians. Someone told the story of the Spartiate whose shield bore no crest at all, but only a common housefly painted life-size. When his rankmates made sport of him for this, the Spartan declared that in line of battle he would get so close to his enemy that the housefly would look as big as a lion.

    Every year the military drills followed the same pattern. For two days enthusiasm reigned. Every man was so relieved to be free of farm or shop chores, and so delighted to be reunited with his comrades (and away from the children and women around the house), that the event took on the flavor of a festival. There were sacrifices morning and evening. The rich smells of spitted meat floated over everything; there were wheaten buns and honey candies, fresh-rolled fig cakes, and bowls of rice and barley grilled in sweet new-pressed sesame oil.

    By the third day the militiamen's blisters started. Forearms and shoulders were rubbed raw by the heavy hoplon shields. The warriors, though most were farmers or grovers and supposedly of stout seasoned limb, had in fact passed the bulk of their agricultural labor in the cool of the counting room and not out behind a plough. They were getting tired of sweating. It was hot under those helmets. By the fourth day the sunshine warriors were presenting excuses in earnest. The farm needed this, the shop needed that, the slaves were robbing them blind, the hands were screwing each other silly. "Look at how straight the line advances now, on the practice field," Bruxieus would chuckle, squinting past me and the other boys. "They won't step so smartly when heaven starts to rain arrows and javelins. Each man will be edging to the right to get into his rankmate's shadow." Meaning the shelter of the shield of the man on his right. "By the time they hit the enemy line, the right wing will be overlapped half a stade and have to be chased back into place by its own cavalry!"

    Nonetheless our citizen army (we could put four hundred heavy-armored hoplites into the field on a full call-up), despite the potbellies and wobbly shins, had acquitted itself more than honorably, at least in my short lifetime. That same prytaniarch, Onaximandros, had two fine span of oxen, got from the Kerionians, whose countryside our forces allied with the Argives and Eleuthrians had plundered ruthlessly three years running, burning a hundred farms and killing over seventy men. My uncle Tenagros had a stout mule and a full set of armor got in those seasons. Nearly every man had something.

    But back to our militia's maneuvers. By the fifth day, the city fathers were thoroughly exhausted, bored and disgusted. Sacrifices to the gods redoubled, in the hope that the immortals' favor would make up for any lack of polemike techne, skill at arms, or empeiria, experience, on the part of our forces. By now there were huge gaps in the field and we boys had descended upon the site with our own play shields and spears. That was the signal to call it a day. With much grumbling from the zealots and great relief from the main body, the call was issued for the final parade. Whatever allies the city possessed that year (the Argives had sent their strategos autokrater, that great city's supreme military commander) were marshaled gaily into the reviewing stands, and our reinvigorated citizen-soldiers, knowing their ordeal was nearly over, loaded themselves up with every ounce of armor they possessed and passed in glorious review.

    This final event was the greatest excitement of all, with the best food and music, not to mention the raw spring wine, and ended with many a farm cart bearing home in the middle watch of the night sixty-five pounds of bronze armor and a hundred and seventy pounds of loudly snoring warrior.

    This morning, which initiated my destiny, came about because of ptarmigan eggs.

    Among Bruxieus' many talents, foremost was his skill with birds. He was a master of the snare. He constructed his traps of the very branches his prey favored to roost upon. With a pop! so delicate you could hardly hear it, his clever snares would fire, imprisoning their mark by the "boot" as Bruxieus called it, and always gently.

    One evening Bruxieus summoned me in secrecy behind the cote. With great drama he lifted his cloak, revealing his latest prize, a wild ptarmigan cock, full of fight and fire. I was beside myself with excitement. We had six tame hens in the coop. A cock meant one thing--eggs! And eggs were a supreme delicacy, worth a boy's fortune at the city market.

    Sure enough, within a week our little banty had become the strutting lord of the walk, and not long thereafter I cradled in my palms a clutch of precious ptarmigan eggs.

    We were going to town! To market. I woke my cousin Diomache before the middle watch was over, so eager was I to get to our farm's stall and put my clutch up for sale. There was a diaulos flute I wanted, a double-piper that Bruxieus had promised to teach me coot and grouse calls on. The proceeds from the eggs would be my bankroll. That double-piper would be my prize.

    We set out two hours before dawn, Diomache and I, with two heavy sacks of spring onions and three cheese wheels in cloth loaded on a half-lame female ass named Stumblefoot. Stumblefoot's foal we had left home tied in the barn; that way we could release mama in town when we unloaded, and she would make a beeline on her own, straight home to her baby.

    This was the first time I had ever been to market without a grown-up and the first with a prize of my own to sell. I was excited, too, by being with Diomache. I was not yet ten; she was thirteen. She seemed a full-grown woman to me, and the prettiest and smartest in all that countryside. I hoped my friends would fall in with us on the road, just to see me on my own beside her.

    We had just reached the Akarnanian road when we saw the sun. It was bright flaring yellow, still below the horizon against the purple sky. There was only one problem: it was rising in the north.

    "That's not the sun," Diomache said, stopping abruptly and jerking hard on Stumblefoot's halter. "That's fire."


    It was my father's friend Pierion's farm.

    The farm was burning.

    "We've got to help them," Diomache announced in a voice that brooked no protest, and, clutching my cloth of eggs in one hand, I started after her at a fast trot, hauling the bawling gimpy-foot ass. How can this happen before fall, Diomache was calling as we ran, the fields aren't tinder-dry yet, look at the flames, they shouldn't be that big.

    We saw a second fire. East of Pierion's. Another farm. We pulled up, Diomache and I, in the middle of the road, and then we heard the horses.

    The ground beneath our bare feet began to rumble as if from an earthquake. We saw the flare of torches. Cavalry. A full platoon. Thirty-six horses were thundering toward us. We saw armor and crested helmets. I started running toward them, waving in relief. What luck! They would help us! With thirty-six men, we'd have the fires out in--

    Diomache yanked me back hard. "Those aren't our men."

    They came past at a near gallop, looking huge and dark and ferocious. Their shields had been blackened, soot smeared on the blazes and stockings of their horses, their bronze greaves caked with dark mud. In the torchlight I saw the white beneath the soot on their shields. Argives. Our allies. Three riders reined in before us; Stumblefoot bawled in terror and stamped to break; Diomache held the halter fast.

    "What you got there, girlie?" the burliest of the horsemen demanded, wheeling his lathered, mud-matted mount before the onion sacks and the cheeses. He was a wall of a man, like Ajax, with an open-faced Boeotian helmet and white grease under his eyes for vision in the dark. Night raiders. He leaned from his saddle and made a lunging swipe for Stumblefoot. Diomache kicked the man's mount, hard in the belly; the beast bawled and spooked.

    "You're burning our farms, you traitorous bastards!"

    Diomache slung Stumblefoot's halter free and slapped the fear-stricken ass with all her strength. The beast ran like hell and so did we.

    I have sprinted in battle, racing under arrow and javelin fire with sixty pounds of armor on my back, and countless times in training have I been driven up steep broken faces at a dead run. Yet never have my heart and lungs labored with such desperate necessity as they did that terror-filled morning. We left the road at once, fearing more cavalry, and bolted straight across country, streaking for home. We could see other farms burning now. "We've got to run faster!" Diomache barked back at me. We had come beyond two miles, nearly three, on our trek toward town, and now had to retrace that distance and more across stony, overgrown hillsides. Brambles tore at us, rocks slashed our bare feet, our hearts seemed like they must burst within our breasts. Dashing across a field, I saw a sight that chilled my blood. Pigs. Three sows and their litters were scurrying in single file across the field toward the woods. They didn't run, it wasn't a panic, just an extremely brisk, well-disciplined fast march. I thought: those porkers will survive this day, while Diomache and I will not.

    We saw more cavalry. Another platoon and another, Aetolians of Pleuron and Kalydon. This was worse; it meant the city had been betrayed not just by one ally but by a coalition. I called to Diomache to stop; my heart was about to explode from exertion. "I'll leave you, you little shit!" She hauled me forward. Suddenly from the woods burst a man. My uncle Tenagros, Diomache's father. He was in a nightshirt only, clutching a single eight-foot spear. When he saw Diomache, he dropped the weapon and ran to embrace her. They clung to each other, gasping. But this only struck more terror into me. "Where's Mother?" I could hear Diomache demanding. Tenagros' eyes were wild with grief. "Where's my mother?" I shouted. "Is my father with you?"

    "Dead. All dead."

    "How do you know? Did you see them?"

    "I saw them and you don't want to."

    Tenagros retrieved his spear from the dirt. He was breathless, weeping; he had soiled himself; there was liquid shit on the inside of his thighs. He had always been my favorite uncle; now I hated him with a murderous passion. "You ran!" I accused him with a boy's heartlessness. "You showed your heels, you coward!"


    Tenagros turned on me with fury. "Get to the city! Get behind the walls!"

    "What about Bruxieus? Is he alive?"

    Tenagros slapped me so hard he bowled me right off my feet. "Stupid boy. You care more about a blind slave than your own mother and father."

    Diomache hauled me up. I saw in her eyes the same rage and despair. Tenagros saw it too.

    "What's that in your hands?" he barked at me.

    I looked down. There were my ptarmigan eggs, still cradled in the rag in my palms.

    Tenagros' callused fist smashed down on mine, shattering the fragile shells into goo at my feet.

    "Get into town, you insolent brats! Get behind the walls!"

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 313 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 313 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2009

    Review of Gates of Fire

    This book is about the Spartans and their stand at the Battle of Thermopylae so at the very least the theme could be to fight for what is right and not to give up. As already mentioned this novel is about the Greek forces and their stand at Thermopylae, the years building up to it, and the Persian War. Additionally, the book is narrated by a man named Xeones who was a squire for a Spartiate soldier and outlander from Sparta who came there as a child after his parents were killed and his village burned. He was captured after the battle and was the lone survivor among the Greek forces with many injuries that would eventually cause his death. He tells the story of his life building up to the Battle of Thermopylae to the King of Persia at that time; King Xerxes. I enjoyed this book as it has large amounts of action and is very descriptive, it also is a great read for anyone who is interested in ancient war history (particularly Greece). The author, Steven Pressfield, also writes books dealing with other ancient battles and wars in a similar way (a fictional narrator talking about real events) such as Tides of War.
    Xeones is a young man of average stature who is very well built with shoulder length hair. Things that are important to him are his country, his family, and his brother soldiers. His motivation is his need to fight and if necessary die for his country so long as he can be thought of by his Spartan brothers as a fellow soldier, "At that moment, I didn't really care that I was going to die. All that mattered was I was finally needed, and recognized by my fellow warriors as a soldier" (pg.323). He overcomes obstacles in a variety of ways, he will usually think his way through challenges but when this does not work he will usually have to just tough it out which is what made him so strong. Throughout the book he learned to be mentally and physically tough and that country and family, above all, are important.
    War is a global theme in the book that affects everyone; the characters are affected by it as all of the male characters die due to it (including the narrator), "A cry of grief as I had never heard tore from my master's breast," (pg. 344). War does not only affect the events of the book, war is the reason for the events in the book. Everything that occurs is due to war, specifically, the Persian War. A statement that could be made based on the global theme is that war is horrible; it brings out the best and the worst in people and kills many.
    This book was chosen for the bestseller list for the author's use of imagery and for its creative presentation of the Battle of Thermopylae and the Persian War. I completely agree with this decision as it is a great piece of writing and if you enjoy action/adventure books that carefully feed you information in a rationed manner that still allows for a book that flows well this book is a great choice.

    11 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A must read! this is actually on most army units recommended lists

    Pressfield has truly captured the spirit of an infantry or other combat units in Gates Of Fire, it was recommended by my Lt. and once i picked it up i couldnt put it down. The story flows well and is so graphically described that some parts actually make you cringe. The banter between the spartan characters is so realistic you could have put any one of them in todays armies and they would fit right in. This book blows 300 out of the water!

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2010

    AP World History

    In Gates of Fire Steven Pressfield brings the legendary Battle of Thermopylae and Spartan culture to life. Pressfield attempts to not only give a detailed description of the Battle of Thermopylae but also Spartan culture, both of which he does beautifully. Pressfield vividly describes not only the harrowing valor of the Spartan 300 but also an unparalleled insight into Spartan military culture and training. In 480 BC the Persian Empire marched with a force of two million men against Greece. In Greece's defense a small forces of 2,500 Greek soldiers marched out in an attempt to slow the Persian advance. 300 Spartans were among this squadron, willing to fight to the death for their homeland. The two armies crashed at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. For six days the small force held off the entire Persian army, inflicting an estimated 20,000 casualties on the enemy. On the seventh day the main Greek force withdrew. The remaining Spartan force and a small number of Thespians stayed giving their comrades time for escape. The residual Greek forces fought heroically to the death. The slowed Persian advance gave Greek forces added time to muster men and eventually repel the invasion. Pressfield's depiction of the heroism of the 300 Spartans has forever immortalized their brave story. Pressfield depicts the story from a Spartan soldier's armor bearer's point of view. The armor bearer, Xeo, tells his life story beautifully from his youth as an outcast to his acceptation into the Spartan military. Through the eyes of Xeo, Pressfield tells of an armor bearer's duties, soldier's thoughts and attitudes, Sparta's military training, and Sparta's military based culture. While he tells that Sparta is a cruel and brutal military society he also tells of the beauty and love that the civilization also possesses. Xeo tells of discussions with his master about deep thoughts about the opposite of fear and other deep and true thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Gates of Fire. The story is historically accurate yet reads like a novel and not like a textbook at all. Pressfield gives interesting facts about Spartan culture, its soldiers, attitudes of religion, and gripping battle scenes. The novel is extremely entertaining and gives a fascinating insight into courage, discipline, love, and war. Based on all of these reason I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading of history or war.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2010

    Must read!

    What makes a Spartan a Spartan? This book will tell you. Outstanding account of the creation of the warrior from psychological to physical.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2010

    A magnificent epic of the warrior ethos

    This novel paints the true warrior ethos as accurately as I've ever seen it described. An excellent read from start to finish and a superbly creative way to tell the tale of the battle at Thermopylae.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 10, 2012

    Simply said THE most enjoyable read I have ever read. The last c

    Simply said THE most enjoyable read I have ever read. The last chapter about the Athenian Golden Age and it's profound legacy to our -OK ...MY Western Culture and to the best of civilization should be required reading to every student of Western History. When O man when, shall we we see a movie from this novel. 300 though OK as an homage to the 1962 movie, it is nothing like GATES OF FIRE.

    N.B. 97% of readers gave this novel 5 stars. Few books can boast of his. ignore the ninnys that gave the book 1 star because he/they had a hard time following the book. "Stupid is as stupid does Sir!" as Forrest would say..

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2012

    An amazing novel!

    A great read for a Soldiers mind.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Stunningly excellent

    Just finished reading this for the third time, and it's continually astonishing to me how a book can be so simultaneously poetic and brutal, so romantic and realistic, so inspirational and painful. Pressfield provides an infantryman's eye view of the bloody hand to hand combat present at Thermopylae. My sleep was actually disturbed for two nights after I finished the book, yet the beauty of its characters (including the women) has endured. This novel shatters the absurd caricature of the Spartans from the movie 300, which depicted them as contemptuous of their position and unafraid. In Pressfield's novel, they are terrified, but even more afraid of letting down their comrades or shaming themselves. They knew they'd been sent to die, and they did their duty. Phenomenal book and a must-read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 11, 2010

    If you like thrill, adventure, action, epic battles, and historical fiction, then this is a great book if anyone enjoys those categories. This must be one of my favorite novels that I have ever read.

    The book is called "Gates of Fire" written by Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire is about the epic battle at Thermopylae with the 300 brave Spartans going up against the millions of soldiers in the Persian army. The story on a Spartan soldier's point of view about his tale in the army and how he got there with all of the brutal training and punishments he had to endure in order to be tougher, stronger, and wiser as a warrior. The reason why I chose this story is because I like the adventure and thrill of the Spartans and also I like reading about war battles because of the suspense.
    The time period of this book setting is in 480B.C in Greece and the Middle East of the Persian Empire. The ruler of the Persian Empire at this time was King Xerxes and he wanted to expand the Persian Empire out east to conquer all of Greece. This then lead to the rise of the 300 brave Spartans hand pick from their king, Leonidas, and also the Sparta ally, the Thespaian, fought along side the Spartans in the battle and died with them till the last man stands within six days while killing millions of Persians. The importance of this historical event to modern historians or readers is to show the bravery, courage, and loyalty on how the Spartans did not give up and did not allow the Persians to take over Greece which the Persians never had the chances to succeed their goal. Later Alexander the Great started making attacks to the Persians when he was 20 years old in 336B.C when he became king of Macedonia after his father's death.
    Steven Pressfield was born in 1943 in Port of Spain Trinidad because his dad was in the Navy. Pressfield then joined the Marines in the 1960s and later graduated from Duke University. Pressfield mostly writes about military historical fiction. One of the works Pressfield is famous for is the "The Legend of Vagger Vance" which later became a movie in 1995. Then one of his famous books after that is "Gates of Fire" and it is so great of a book that some military schools like West Point, Annapolis, and the Marines Corps Basic School at Quantico have this on their reading lists. The point of view that Pressfield uses to express the hidden voice in the book is 1rst person and this really gives you an inside scoop of how the main character feels and acts along the story. Finally the reason why Pressfield decided to write about the 300 Spartans is because he was thinking of the soldiers in Iraq and how once earlier in time there was once an epic battle between the Persians and Spartans.
    This book is a great story to see how this certain culture of the Spartans would prepare soldiers to war since some of the squires (a word used for Spartan cadets) were training ever since they were young as the age of six. What made the Spartans so fascinating about how they treat war than other cultures is that they were really harsh on the young squires and would work them hard, make them tougher by beating them till they can't stand up or do hard training exercises, and make them wise and know the ways of war. In the story, King Leonidas says about a Spartan Soldier, "That half of him, the best part, a man sets aside and leaves behind. He banishes from his heart all feelings tenderness and mercy, all compassion and kindness, all thought or concept of the enemy as a man, a human being like himself. He marches into battle bearing only the second portion of himself, the baser measure, that half which knows slaughter and butchery and turns the blind ey

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2006

    Xerxes: 'Lay Down Your Weapons'

    Leaonidas: 'Come and Take Them'. I was going to give this book 4 stars, but the more I thought about it I had to give it 5. You know a book is good when you've been reading into the wee hours of the night and then lay there for an hour thinking about what you just read. The actual battle is only about the last third of the book as opposed to a book like Black Hawk Down were most of the book IS the battle. The result however, are amazingly well developed characters and a look inside the methods of building a first class fighting force. Even the women in this story are some of the strongest characters which is quite impressive considering it is essentially a war book. The battle scenes are intense and I can't stress enough that it feels like you are there amongst the Spartans. I do have to say that it wasn't really JUST 300 Spartans. They started off with about 5000 soldiers from all over Greece versus an outrageous force of 100,000s from all over the known world(The numbers seem to vary). The final battles are made up of the remnants of this force led by 100 Spartans. These almost super human soldiers stalled Xerxes' army while the rest of Greece rallied it's forces. Read this book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 22, 2012

    Amazing book

    Great writing style, great story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 11, 2011

    Truly outstanding

    Couldn't put it down.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2011

    Amazing read

    Like many of the other readers, I just couldn't put this book down. How different war was for the ancient people. I cant even image being that close to a enemy in battle. This is definitely a recommended must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2011

    This book is a must read

    You will love this book from start to finish, and all in between.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2011

    Suspensful

    amazing cant put it down

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2011

    Gates of Fire is amazing

    Gates of Fire is about the story of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae against the millions of Persian soldiers. The author of the book is Steven Pressfield and he gives us an adventure of a single Spartan soldier out of the 300 and describes his journey becoming a soldier and the risks he endures to become a warrior.
    The main character of the book is a boy named Xeones. Xeones originally lives in a small little city state when eventually one day invading soldiers comes in and takes over the town. Xeoenes luckily escapes and goes to Spara to become a Spartan. Doing so, we see his story of how he managed the hard and brutal work in order to be a warrior of Sparta.
    When the year 400 B.C.E came along, the king of Sparta, Leonidas, gathered his fearless 300 Spartans (including Xeones) and their allias, the Thespians, to march out of Greece to fight against the incoming millions of Persian soldiers lead by King Xerxes I. From there on we the endurance that the Spartans and Thespians encounter with strong fighting and blood being shed.
    I would recommend this book to anyone who likes adventure, warfare, thrill, and historical fiction. If you ever start a book club, this would be a great book to thrill your imagination. I give this book fives stars and truly recommend it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2011

    Highly Recommended

    I really enjoyed this book from the action to the information with spartan life it was truly amazing.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 27, 2010

    Ancient glory revealed

    Fantastic book about the Battle of Thermopylae and the brave Greeks who fought against Persian invaders, as told by a crippled survivor to the Emperor Xerxes himself. The narrator goes into great detail about Spartan daily life, the road to war, and individual heroes and the lives they lead. It gives great insight into the minds of men in Sparta. Immensely gripping, I could not put this book down -- this will be one of the rare books I read more than once!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2010

    Awesome!

    This is a must read. I was glued to my chair while reading this book. I felt like I was part of the book, and part of the characters life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2010

    Easy read with ancient-sounding prose

    Has something of the sound of Homer to it, but in a way that is very approachable and readable. The story is told in first-person, the story of a Spartan from his youth as a villager to his coming into the world of war. It's interesting as a plot but the story-telling is what I'm really recommending. It really gave me the feeling that books did when I was a child reading them, that I was being spirited away to another place and time.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 313 Customer Reviews

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