Alexander's Afghan Campaign: Learning History from Fiction

The marriage of Alexander the Great with Roxana of Bactria (in 327BCE), painting circa 1670-1733 by Gerard Hoet (1648-1733). Photo: [CC0] via Wikimedia.

The Afghan CampaignThe Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Steven Pressfield is one of my most favourite contemporary authors of fiction. I have read Gates of Fire and Tides of War and learnt much about history as a consequence.

The Afghan Campaign is a gripping read and it doesn't end how one might want it to. I respect the ending more so than if it had been Disneyfied (even though I secretly hoped it would). 

Pressfield does not offer a political commentary on the Afghan campaign, but, as in his other works of historical fiction, places a fictional individual in the midst of history's great people (in this case, Alexander III of Macedon). The format works well and gives enough creative licence to enable a ripping story to emerge from a background of recorded history.

Pressfield's historical research is admirable. I read Gates of Fire before I began writing personal notes about every book I read. But before reading Tides of War, I finished Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War. This meant that  I was able to be reminded of key events covered by Thucydides in Pressfield's account of Athens' Sicilian Campaign.

While I have not done so yet, I intend to read Robin Lane Fox's Alexander the Great soon to see how this novel stacks up. But I don't think it matters.

Pressfield is certainly brilliant, and I must admit to liking the way he has worked hard to overcome his own demons. He gives me hope that I can do the same.

I also like that Pressfield is a bit of an underdog. His work is brilliant - I enjoy his work more than Wilbur Smith's (who has also written the odd historical novel or two). But there is something more philosophical about Pressfield that grabs my attention. On his website, he has this to say:
We can’t control the level of talent we’ve been given. We have no control over the nature of our gift. What we can control is our self-motivation, our self-discipline, our self-validation, and our self-reinforcement.
In 2012, Pressfield started his own publishing house, Black Irish Books, with his agent, Shawn Coyne. I have been critical of literary entrepreneurs in the past, but Pressfield is no "spring chicken", and claims to have written for 27 years before anything he wrote was published. This counters Einstein's view that:
A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.
Anything that goes against Einstein's view  is a winner for me. Although some suggest Einstein didn't quite mean it this way, I have heard so many others use Einstein's words (without acknowledging him) and even judgements about people based on their age, that Pressfield's example gives me some comfort. (Some studies suggest that the age peak is now much older because one couldn't even catch up with the existing literature by age 30, let alone discover new knowledge.)

So this book has it all: a gripping story from an author with a back story that defies the odds. And it is based on historical research that provides an increase in historical knowledge as a side effect. What more could one want in a novel?