4 out of 4 stars
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The Fox, written by M. N. J. Butler, is a historical novel in which the fate of the protagonist mysteriously reflects the fate of his country.
The plot of the book unfolds in ancient Greece. In his declining years, a Spartan by the name of Leotychides dictates memories of his life and his city-state to the scribe. It quickly becomes clear that at some point this life had changed not for the better. Old Leotychides found himself in a foreign country, in Macedon, and is completely dependent on the Macedonian King Philippos II - even the house in which he lives and the scribe who records his story were provided to him by Philippos. However, when the main character is immersed in his memories, it turns out that he was once a prince from the Spartan dynasty of Eurypontids. As is commonly known, the princes eventually become kings, and certainly the members of royal families have enough money for both houses and servants, and they do not live as exiles in a foreign land. Obviously, something in the life of Leotychides went wrong. This book describes how the happy little prince turned into an old poor exile.
With Sparta, which Leotychides loved so much, something also went wrong. When he was a child, his country flourished and was the most powerful city-state in the whole Greece. However, even before the main character left his Sparta, it had fallen into disrepair and changed far from for the better. The mention of the name of the Macedonian King Philippos II prompts readers - if they know a little bit of history – that the day is near when this ruler will subjugate Greece entirely, and the era of free city-states will come to an end.
Thus, Butler's Fox is a book about how something went wrong in the life of Leotychides and in the life of Sparta. And although the outcome of the story - Leotychides never became a king, and Sparta fell into decay - you can guess from the first chapter, you still want to read this story to find out exactly what happened to poor Leotychides and his homeland.
The book is good edited and written in great language. Butler describes very vividly and almost visually describes the mountains and rivers, the royal palaces and the people who live in these palaces. With a few words, he is able to describe the golden earrings in the form of lions in the ears of the beautiful queen, and the small temple of Dionysus among the copse of laurel and fruit trees, and the smell of evening matthiola flowers. Descriptions of nature are especially good. Immediately you can guess that the author himself visited the places that he describes, although in our time. Besides, these descriptions of nature serve another purpose - they help the author characterize the main character. When Leotychides in exile recalls the white-capped mountain peaks and green fields of his Sparta, it becomes clear that he loved his homeland very much and left it against his own will.
Interestingly, the protagonist uses the word she when talking about Sparta or about some other Greek city-state. This shows that Leotychides and his contemporaries perceived their small states as living beings, almost like their mothers. This is a great idea of the author.
In addition, Butler perfectly knows the history of ancient Greece. He is well aware of the strange political system of Sparta, which assumed the simultaneous existence of two royal dynasties and the simultaneous rule of two kings, and a no less unusual system of raising children in this city-state — boys at the age of seven were taken from their parents and forced to live in extreme harsh conditions. He tells in detail about secular and religious ceremonies, about holidays and about fierce battles.
Since the events in the book occur for about seventy years, there are a lot of characters in it. Many of the politicians and military leaders mentioned in it never appear directly on its pages, but the book details their actions, as they affect the life of the main character. In order for readers not to become entangled in numerous characters and incomprehensible words that signify things and notions that have long been out of use, the author mercifully placed Glossary of names and terms, and the genealogical trees of both royal dynasties of Sparta at the book’s beginning. At the end of the book there is also a list of historical sources from which Butler drew his knowledge of the Sparta’s customs.
There is also humor in the book, although at times it is very macabre and absurd. For example, one day when Leotychides asked rhetorical question whether there were no men left in Sparta, the queen Eurydame, being a too “literal-minded woman”, tells him that there are undoubtedly men in Sparta, “To be precise, two regiments”. In another chapter, Leotychides' friend jokes that war is a real gourmet, because it prefers to devour the best men.
Perhaps the only drawback of The Fox is very excessive praise of Sparta. However, this is understandable, and is not a real disadvantage. After all, the book was written from the former Spartan prince’s perspective.
Finding any other flaws in this book is quite difficult. This is a perfect historical novel. Therefore, The Fox really deserves the highest rating, and I give it 4 out of 4 stars. The book can appeal to both lovers of the history of ancient Greece and lovers of good literature. It should be noted that there are scenes of violence in the book, but nothing very graphic.
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