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The Walls of Sparta

The year 2020 has been hard in so many ways for so many people. Binge-watching and binge-reading and even binge-cooking have helped some of us through it. For people who like the idea of visiting such alternate worlds, Charles Lloyd’s novel, “The Walls of Sparta,” offers a new and exciting landscape.

Lloyd’s debut novel tells the story of ancient Sparta in its proud splendor and fading power. The novel centers on Sparta’s most famous king, Agesilaos II, who ruled from about 404 to the late 360s BCE. Individual views of those who orbit around him show readers this king as a father, brother, husband, commander, slave master and — here comes the controversial part — male lover. This last quality opens up the world of homoerotic relationships, providing a unique and intimate perspective on Greek culture of that time, its values, family life, and especially, its warfare. King Agesilaos emerges as savvy, intriguing, unpredictable and controlling, but also as a loving human being vulnerable to the emotions that affect us all.

Each of Lloyd’s major characters adds to the King’s portrait. Agesilaos’ lover helps him earn fame while still an adolescent. His nephew and seeming heir to the throne meets his uncle the king as an opponent who shatters the youngster’s chances of ever becoming king. Agesilaos’ son must learn how to negotiate the political minefield his father seemingly glides through effortlessly.

Strong women fill out the picture. The king’s sister, Kuniska, defies her royal brother by winning the Olympic chariot race. The king’s wife, Kleora, becomes as cunning politically as her husband. While in Asia, the king’s trusted cavalry officer falls in love with a temptress who happens to be an enemy spy.

The literary portrait of the king also includes two men with strange powers. One is a seer responsible for interpreting omens, and the other a young slave who has visions that reveal both past and future events. But in ancient Sparta, warriors are at the center of life. The title of the novel, a clever play on words, makes that clear. Sparta was unique for the time because it had no city walls: Its soldiers were its walls, its only protection.

One warrior serves as Agesilaos’ personal secretary, privy to the king’s personal and political intrigues. Another the king places as his personal protector in battle at his right, with the protector’s longtime personal enemy at his left — an arrangement that reveals a warrior ethos that uses personal hatred and devotion to native land in equal portions. And as the king’s son sees his father’s power slipping away from him, he meets Megillos, a man who will preserve him through the transition and also become his lover. In these chapters, the king’s trusted soldiers reveal vividly what protecting Sparta was all about: the kind of courage, strength and intelligence that foresees, enables and overcomes.

Lloyd’s depiction of ancient Greek and Spartan life is full and engaging in detail: how Spartans send secret messages to each other, how battles are staged and fought, what Greek clothes are like, situations where nudity becomes a kind of clothing, and how in Greek culture same-sex desire is commonplace and expected.

This alternate world is impressively created. Whether it is a battlefield, a barley harvest, a drinking party, a mock training battle, a meeting with a Persian ruler, a meeting between two lovers, or the burial of a wounded comrade, Lloyd sets each scene vividly. From slave to wife to son to warrior and from Agesilaos’ ascent to the throne to his death and its aftereffects, the author creates engrossing characters and relationships that enhance readers’ understanding of connections, political and personal, that let readers see who this famous king was, what mattered to him and how his culture formed him.

This novel is energetic and captivating. A friend of mine, who just completed the book, told me that she judges a good novel as one in which, at the end of each chapter, she wants more and can hardly wait to get to the next chapter. She said that’s how she felt reading this book. She was always impatient to get to the next chapter. So was I. And that’s no surprise.

“The Walls of Sparta,” published by Lethe Press, is the product of Lloyd’s long interest in Greek history, from his teenage years to a college education leading to his doctorate in ancient Greek literature and then to over 35 years of teaching about this ancient world to Marshall University students.

A longtime resident of Huntington, Lloyd shares his home with furred and feathered friends — a dozen cats and four parrots, including a Senegal and an orange-winged Amazon — that he treats with loving care and soothes with classical music, as he is an accomplished pianist. His short story “Wonders” appears in the recent anthology, “LGBTQ Fiction and Poetry from Appalachia.”

Edwina Pendarvis is a retired Marshall professor, as well as an author, editor and poet. She can be contacted via email at pendarvi@marshall.edu.