The Lost Army by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

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The Lost Army by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Buy The Lost Army from Amazon.co.uk

Buy The Lost Army from Amazon.com

Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: On the campaign trail with The Ten Thousand: Greek mercenaries recruited by a Spartan, and paid for by a Persian. It's thirty years after Thermopylae and old hatreds die hard, but the real reason for this expedition is shrouded in secrecy.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 415 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Macmillan
ISBN: 978-0230530652

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The village girls of Beth Qadá, a hamlet in the wind-swept shadows of Mount Amanus, have little to look forward to. Their husband will be chosen for them and they will submit to him and life will go on day after day. They will scratch their existence from the earth and see their profit taxed to provide yet one more jewelled or embroidered belt for the Queen Mother who is nothing but a name and a burden to them.

One day, there is a disturbance at the boundary of the village. A woman approaches, deaf to the shouts telling her to leave, she walks steadfastly forward as the men gather together to throw their stones. She walks until she falls. The men continue to stone. Until she is left and the young girls who have witnessed all are shushed and gathered by their mothers and whisked home.

Unable to sleep, the girls steal out to visit the body – only to find that beneath the bloody cairn there is still a breath. Secretively they find shelter, and food, for the visitor and start to try to nurse her back into life.

In return, they get to hear her story. Abira is not a visitor at all, but a home-comer. She is not welcome because years previously, she deserted her family and her betrothed and followed a soldier. A shame that cannot be forgiven, and a love that she does not regret.

The story that Abira tells is her own tale, but it is also the tale of the Anabasis, as first recorded by Xenothon of Athens in the 5th Century BC. For those who do not know their Greek legends and history, I will not spoil the novel by repeating the history, other than to give the background information that in 401BC an army of a hundred thousand Persian soldiers set off from Sardis in Lydia to capture a kingdom. Among them were the Ten Thousand – an expedition of surreptitiously recruited Greek mercenaries with their own reasons to be there. Money is not least among those reasons, but there are others, some are there upon the orders of their country…but why?

Among the recruits is Xenothon. A historian, who knows how to fight. He it is that finds Abira one day by the well at Beth Qadá and enchants her away into the hardships and intrigues of camp life.

The Italian author, Manfredi, is a classical archaeologist who, over several scientific expeditions and partly in conjunction with British scholar Timothy Mitford, has mapped and explored the route and battle sites recorded by Xenothon. He knows his territory. When he speaks of the parched deserts or the snows of winter or the mountains that glisten like jewels when fired by the sun, you can believe that he has seen them. Every scene and scent has the ring of authenticity about it.

As a historian, he depicts battles and skirmishes, more by their results than for effect. The expedition is long and hard and men (and women) die along the way. The conflicts are brutal and bloody – pitched battles and guerrilla warfare and the ravaging pass of an army raiding to feed itself – but unlike many writers of the genre Manfredi steers clear of too great an emphasis on the hand to hand killing. The blood and gore are almost taken as read. By choosing a woman as his narrator he has given himself the freedom, or perhaps the restraint, of telling the tale from the point of view of someone who was always on the edges of the fighting, (unless by accident, and then suitably terrified and trying to hide or to run). It has a strange effect. The battles and the bodies are counted, but in the way that history does, simply for the record. Few are remembered by name or deed. Intuitively, that should make the story less real, more remote. Instead that very remoteness adds to the plausibility of it. The less that is imagined, the more we can assume is deduced from the genuine record. Rightly or wrongly.

The few characters of focus emerge and change slowly. Every one of them heroic and flawed. The soldiers and the women who serve and love them, over the many months of the campaign. And so it went on. For days and days. Weeks and months. Contrary to some reviewers I didn't find this moving at a blistering pace or a rip-roaring, page turning yarn. It isn't a fast paced novel, but a finely judged one. In the nature of epics it takes its time. It would have been a long, painful, slog for those involved. Harried at every turn by the enemies, the weather, intrigues and mere squabbles within their own ranks. The slow exposition works surprisingly well. Battles explode and are won and lost… but the push forward, the long march continues relentlessly.

A few continuity errors of detail can be overlooked as on the whole The Lost Army maintains a low level suspense throughout and succeeds in doing honour not just to The Ten Thousand, but also to women and servants who followed them every step of the way.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If Manfredi has given you a taste for the darker side of Greek life, try Gemmell's retelling of the fall of Troy.

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