Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a romping story of the Roman Republic’s endgame, was one of my top reads last year so I was relishing getting stuck into Persian Fire, which gives the treatment to the Persian Wars. Holland’s strengths as a historian are clear: he is a fantastic narrator, a brisk marshaller of sources and also has a real gift for thinking through the motives of individual players. His weakness in the last book was also obvious: he’s addicted to making clever parallels between ancient and modern. This can be entertaining – recasting the Persian Wars as “the world’s sole superpower leading a war against two mountainous terrorist states” is smart and amusing, but in Rubicon he hammered the similarities home a bit.

Persian Fire doesn’t push the parallels much beyond the dustjacket blurb, but faces a different problem: as Holland says in his introduction, the earlier history of the classical world is enormously difficult to piece together. And the earlier history of the non-classical world – the mighty Persian empire included – is even more difficult as written sources are almost non-existent. To make matters worse, whereas for Rubicon Holland was working with scrupulously elegant but slightly dry Roman historians, in Persian Fire he is walking in the footsteps of master fabulist Herodotus, a man whose stories often need less embellishment, not more.

Holland keeps as sure a footing as he can but the opening chapters of Persian Fire are often necessarily sketchy, with outlandish yarns retold for a lack of much other evidence. The ebb and flow of tribal war in the ancient Near East is complicated stuff, and hard to make catch fire. Luckily, when the focus narrows to the build-up to war and the war’s action, Holland comes into his own, and the book gets much more gripping. Here we’re back on Rubicon territory – political and military maneouverings by big characters for massive stakes – and Holland does a wonderful job.

Narrative history is back in fashion right now, and sometimes Persian Fire reads like a film or TV pitch – it’s easy (and tempting) to imagine a lavish BBC drama called Greece, or Athens, with cliffhangers and season breaks ready-made. If such a thing did happen, I hope Tom Holland gets a nod as consultant.