1 out of 4 stars
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The Fox is a historical fiction novel written by M. N. J. Butler. Set in the classical era, most of the story is told through the recollections of Leotychides, an old Spartan man. The protagonist decides to write down his account of the historical events he witnessed at the request of Philippos, king of Macedonia. He reflects on his own personal struggles as heir to the throne as well as major events that would change Sparta forever.
The author, born in Kenya and educated in Ireland, has studied classics and ancient history in the course of his life, which definitely shows in the novel. The characters and locations are written authentically, and the story's events follow a careful timeline based on historical accounts. Nothing feels anachronistic or out of place. For example, there is scarce information on the real Leotychides, but his fictional life is fully consistent with historical events.
Sadly, extensive knowledge brings a downside: the novel assumes familiarity with all kinds of facts and trivia, often overindulging in historical references. In one scene, a character mentions Aristogoras out of nowhere ("What a stupid man Aristogoras was"), following up with: "Foreigners think the Council declined his proposal to take Persia, because they feared a three-month march. Even I once thought that the meaning was that riches are not worth a day's march, let alone three months." Who is Aristogoras? What exactly was his proposal? None of this is explained, so the reader has to do research on their own to find out that Aristogoras was an Ionian leader plotting a revolt against Persia.
The book does include a helpful glossary with relevant names and terms, but it's far from enough. The glossary misses things that could leave readers confused, like the aforementioned Aristogoras. Besides, the story should stand on its own instead of forcing the reader to go back and forth from a glossary. What makes matters worse is how dense the novel is: we're introduced to about twenty characters in the first fifteen pages alone. Moreover, these aren't straightforward character introductions, as they're interspersed with the narrator's endless comments and digressions.
As for the story itself, I enjoyed how the author captured the intricacies of wars and politics in the ancient world. For example, there's much emphasis on oracles, omens, and the will of gods; indeed, political and military decisions back then were heavily influenced by religious beliefs. That said, I couldn't help feeling that Leotychides was a terrible choice for the protagonist role. He's uninvolved in several significant events, so we only know about them from hearsay. His point of view is so limited we barely even see Lysander and Agisilaos, the main antagonists and hugely influential figures.
Leotychides' hugest flaw as a character is by far his impassivity. Acting as the stereotypical Spartan man, he is stoic, loyal to tradition, and a soldier who fulfills his duty without question. He remains unmoved while other characters do actually interesting things. His personality might make him admirable, but it also makes him boring. At the very least, the novel would benefit from the points of view of different people.
The other characters don't fare better, mostly because there are far too many of them for the reader to be invested in anyone in particular. Ironically, the most interesting characters act the least like Spartans: Antalkidas, Timaia, and Lysander. These are calculating and ambitious people who move at their own pace without shackles of the past, unlike the protagonist. These words from Antalkidas are a nice summary of the man and the reason he is my favorite character: "Had I been I born Athenian, I would fight for empire. Had I been Theban, I'd raid cattle. I am Spartiate. I act within the customs of my city, but I am still the same man I would be wherever I was born."
The book needs extensive editing. There are dozens of spelling, typographical, and formatting issues: missing or extraneous punctuation, misspelled names, blank pages, and misaligned paragraphs are just the most common problems. I found nine mistakes in the first chapter alone. Furthermore, there's no spacing between paragraphs aside from scene transitions, making the reading experience even more frustrating and tiresome.
I regret rating The Fox 1 out of 4 stars. It's an exhausting read that demands careful note-taking, extensive glossary consultation, and extra research for anyone who isn't very familiar with Ancient Greece. The book paints a splendid picture of the classical era that could appeal to history buffs, but the poor editing prevents me from rating it any higher. Since there are a few instances of crude language, non-explicit sex scenes, mild violence, and mature themes like adultery, the novel should be suitable for older teens. That said, the reader might be better off reading a history book instead.
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