Protector: A Novel of Ancient Greece

Written by Conn Iggulden
Review by Nick Wisseman

Protector picks up where Conn Iggulden’s first book (The Gates of Athens) in his new Athenian series left off: in 480 BCE, with the sprawling forces of Persia threatening to overwhelm the peoples of Greece. After making a valiant stand at Thermopylae, the Greeks have retreated to Salamis, an island west of Athens. And the Persians have followed.

Iggulden plunges us into the action almost immediately, detailing how the surrounding waters become “a slick of splinters and corpses” as Greek triremes—nimble warships crewed by three rows of oarsmen and tipped with a ship-killing bronze ram—do their best to survive against a vast fleet of Persian galleys as Athens burns in the distance. The details are evocative, and the stakes are high throughout, as one character notes, “no one keeps a reserve in a fight with a bear. It was all or nothing, for a future as free men or slaves.” Iggulden also touches on the hypocrisy of that sentiment. The Greeks saw bending the knee to Persia as an unacceptable form of subjugation, yet they thought little of owning slaves themselves.

But while I appreciate that Iggulden brings this issue to light, I wish Protector had investigated it further. Most of the point-of-view characters in the book are generals and kings. It might have been illuminating to see part of the story through the eyes of someone with less power (like an Athenian slave who earned his freedom by rowing in the bowels of a trireme during the engagement around Salamis). This quibble aside, I found Protector to be a compelling, informative read. Iggulden is a master of military fiction, capable of rivaling Bernard Cornwell’s skill in recreating battles on land and Patrick O’Brian’s vivid portrayals of conflicts at sea. I can’t wait to see where the Athenian series goes next.