A Man at Arms by Steven Pressfield [9/10]

Ancient history is a novelistic sub-genre I shy away from but Steven Pressfield is a master of dramatic storytelling and something about “A Man at Arms,” its grand theme, drew me in. And I am so glad I opened its cover, for I read it in two evenings of transfixion. In the first century A.D., a new religion’s disciple’s letter on its way from Jerusalem to Corinthian rebels becomes an empire-shifting hunt. The Romans hire an amoral man-at-arms, our hero, who winds up with a ragtag team pursuing the letter. Then the moral balance shifts and his journey becomes an utterly compelling ordeal amidst savagery and corruption, a quest against odds almost impossible to contemplate, a quest only he might contemplate. Pressfield is justly famous for his nonfiction advice series to writers about how to pen compelling fiction, and in A Man at Arms, he provides a bloodthirsty yet noble case study. In a sense the ancient Roman and Jewish setting is artificial, for the novel reeks of a classic Western or a Star Wars epic, but at the same time, of course, the setting imbues the entire quest with significance. Written in a semi-formal voice of gravity, this novel startled me with its universal relevance and dramatic tension. Magnificent.

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