Reviewed by David Maclaine
The Isle of Stone tackles a key episode from Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War: an Athenian naval force probing the coast of the Peloponnese set up a base that was surrounded and attacked by Spartans and then surprisingly managed to turn the tables on their foes. The Athenian victory led to a promising pause in the fruitless war between Athens and Sparta, a truce Athens herself would end by embarking on a fatal expedition to Syracuse. The novel opens decades earlier with an account of the disastrous earthquake that struck Sparta in 464 B.C., then for a long time flashes back and forth between the childhood struggles of two brothers born to a Spartan survivor of that disaster, and to the later catastrophe they face on the island of Sphacteria in 425 B.C.
Nicastro's story reveals some unpleasant truths about the Spartan system from the viewpoint of characters raised in that system and capable only of a few cloudy intuitions about its flaws. But he tries to tell a story without benefit of a main character who is truly sympathetic. That's a tricky task, and Nicastro lacks the literary skill that might have led to full success. The result is a novel that's impossible to recommend for the general reader who wants a well-crafted tale with a fair share of likeable characters. It also lacks the authorial voice and command necessary to produce real tragedy.
But if you care enough about the Spartans, The Isle of Stone may still be the book for you. With its savage portrayal of the traditional upbringing and its chilling images of helot oppression, the novel joins John Gardiner's The Wreckage of Agathon in arguing that the vices of the Spartan system far outweighed its virtues. The Isle of Stone falls short of its ambitions, but if you want to probe the Spartan myth while learning about a crucial moment in their long war with Athens, it's worth a go. (2005, 366 pages)More about The Isle of Stone at Amazon.com or The Book Depository