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Book Review:
Gifts of the Gods: Fire and Ash

Coffee Pot Book Club, Nov 2020

Genre: Historical Fiction
Title: Gifts of the Gods: Fire and Ash
Author: Thomas Berry

"Allies can be as much a hindrance sometimes as the real enemy"

Peace was always going to be a fragile thing, and war was forever on the horizon. Unfortunately for the Athenians and the Spartans alike, allies can no longer be relied upon. As this war takes on a new desperate edge, their allies must decide who to stand with. Everything depends upon them making the right decision.

Once again Thomas J. Berry has presented his readers with an enthralling story of war, loyalty, loss and love. Gifts of the Gods: Fire and Ash, Book 3 is everything I expected it to be, and then some.

The bitter conflict of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta has been brought gloriously back to life between the pages of Berry's remarkable series, Gift of the Gods. Having enjoyed the first two books immensely, I could not wait to read the final instalment in what can only be described as one of the most beguiling series set in the Ancient World that I have ever read. Thankfully, Fire and Ash did not disappoint. With battles aplenty, scheming politicians, and the desperate domestic struggles of those innocent citizens caught in the crossfire between two warring nations, Berry has penned a book that is next to impossible to put down.

The careful use of foreshadowing at the beginning of this novel hints at the sinister end that is to come. At the start of this book, there is a fire in a residential community, a fire that cannot be contained nor extinguished, instead friends and neighbours watch helplessly as they stand back and wait for the fire to burn itself out and leave only ash in its wake. The same could be said for the useless peace treaties and the ongoing military campaigns. This war was a profoundly destructive fire, and nothing could stop it from reaching its dramatic conclusion.

Although this book focuses primarily on the war, Berry does remind his readers that there is more to life than battles, victory and defeat. And although the war is at the forefront of everybody's minds, one still has to go to work and to the market. There are moments of grief, but also moments of joy, be that a gallop along the clifftops, or starting a new life with a loving husband. Life, despite the war, despite the hardship, carries on.

This book is in no way a celebration of war. There are, however, warriors that demonstrate their worth on the battlefield, and military commanders that can snatch victory at the most opportune of moments. And although some characters such as Alcibiades seek eternal glory, there are others who long to go home and live a peaceful, productive life away from the bloodshed and the battles. Fire and Ash certainly does not glorify war, and while this book argues that both sides had a justifiable claim to continue the war, the loss of life, the cruelty and the disrespect that was shown to the dead brings the realities of such a long and protracted campaign to the forefront of the readers' mind. And as the death toll adds up, Berry reminds his readers of the ephemeral duration of man and what a waste it is when the young are butchered on the battlefield so very needlessly. But the one thing that I found endlessly fascinating was that not once did I choose a side in which to root for. There are characters that I liked and despised in both camps, which I thought made this story incredibly realistic.

By telling this story from both sides, Berry has given his readers an intimate insight to not only the two very opposing camps but also how very differently they viewed the world. Even though they were neighbours, the two kingdoms could not have been more dissimilar. Athens is said to be the birthplace of democracy. They were also a trading nation, which was rich in culture and art, whereas Sparta bred a society of warriors, who favoured farming and conquering to the more sophisticated economic activity of its neighbour. These fundamental differences have been depicted with great skill and diligence throughout this series.

The Spartans were mighty warriors who were conditioned to withstand hardship and to keep on fighting, to the very death if necessary. This cultivated determination is demonstrated most admirably in Berry's depiction of Aleki. Although considered, even by himself, past his prime, Aleki is still a proud warrior who believes, with every fibre of his being, in the Spartan way of life. As foreign as it may seem to his country's enemies, Aleki believes that how his nation is governed is straightforward and easy to understand. However, this does not make him blinkered to Sparta's weaknesses, nor does it make him complacent. He understands the risks of fighting the Athenians at sea, and he accepts the limitations of his own warrior class. Aleki really intrigued me throughout the novel because he is wise and he stands up for what he believes in, even if that belief has come from a life of conditioning.

If a man's mortal body is destined to die, then the only way to guarantee immortality is by either saying something profound or doing something extraordinary. And so enters, Alcibiades. For those who know their Greek history, his name will be one that is instantly recognisable. Statesman, orator, general, spy and lover. Alcibiades achieved what he set out to achieve. His name is remembered, but not always for the right reasons. His ability to make enemies is as legendary as his skill as a military strategist. Here is a man who was forced to flee from Athens, and for some reason decided Sparta would be a great place to seek asylum. And fools that they were, the Spartans allowed him to stay. So it must have come as somewhat of a surprise when Alcibiades turned his back on those who had warily welcomed him into their fold and fought once more for the country of his birth. But even his cautious welcome from his Athenian brothers did not last for long! Alcibiades was a man who sought acclaim. He wanted fame, glory, and riches. Whatever your thoughts on Alcibiades might be, I thought Berry's portrayal was remarkably realistic and as historically accurate as it could be in the telling. And at the end of the day, Alcibiades did achieve what he set out to. His name and his deeds are forever immortalized.

Unlike many books set in the Ancient World, Berry has presented his readers with two very strong female characters. Lissy, a former helot, has made a life for herself in Athens, but the war puts everything and everyone she loves at risk. Seeing things through the eyes of an ordinary citizen helps the reader to understand the broader implications of this war and what it meant for them. I thought Lissy's depiction was fabulous. The other heroine in this novel is Timandra, and it is through her depiction that we come to see Alcibiades for who he really was. Thus, the conclusion of these women to this story means the reader has an all-encompassing view of the era and the war.

Although this book does stand firmly on its own two feet, I would suggest starting with Book 1, so you can get an overview of the Peloponnesian War from beginning to end.

Gifts of the Gods: Fire and Ash, Book 3 by Thomas J Berry is immensely readable. You do not have to know anything about the Peloponnesian War to enjoy it, for everything is explained and explored in explicit detail. The Gifts of the Gods is a fabulous trilogy in which you can travel to another time and another place, all from the comfort of your favourite comfy chair!

I Highly Recommend.

Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.

Title: Gifts of the Gods: Fire and Ash
Author: Thomas J. Berry
ISBN: 978-1647188917
Pages: 450
Price: $20.95 US
Oct 2020

Fire and Ash