bunn (bunn) wrote,


I've been reading Mary Renault's Alexander series - Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games.

Fire from Heaven is about Alexander's youth in Macedonia, his witch-queen mother Olympias and his conqueror father Philip, who often appears somewhat baffled and frustrated by both his wife and his son. It tells the story of his first love affair with his friend Hephaestion. It's very readable and feels very authentic. The author clearly thinks the hero is wonderful, although personally I wasn't quite so convinced: he is clearly very talented, but I'm not entirely sure whether I like him that much - not in this book.

The Persian Boy is brilliant. It tells the story of Alexander as seen through the eyes of Bagoas, Alexander's eunuch lover/servant. Although this perhaps doesn't quite fit with the conceit that the book is being told by an elderly Bagoas in retirement in Egypt, she does a wonderful job of reflecting Bagoas's changing character and attitudes as he gets older, from his early youth as a noble Persian child, through enslavement and castration, prostitution, elevation to the position of Great King's boy, and then being sent as a gift to the victorious Alexander, and falling in love with him.

The single point of view really helps the fast-moving narrative and the cast of thousands make sense and hold together. Since Bagoas is in love with Alexander, it makes the conquering hero seem more human and approachable than he might otherwise.

The cast of thousands is, to my mind, something of a problem in Funeral Games, set after Alexander's death. It's a fairly chaotic period anyway, with Alexander's empire falling apart and his generals, rivals, and relatives all struggling to inherit, and with the constant moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, I did sometimes have some difficulty telling people apart. I think Renault's favorite characters in this series are Alexander and Hephaestion (dead), Bagoas and Ptolemy (who retire to Egypt fairly quickly) and this leaves us with most of a book about people who she doesn't seem to really like all that much.

There are exceptions, but perhaps not quite shown prominently enough to carry the story. Alexander's brother Arrhidaeus who had what we'd now call a learning disability is drawn as very likeable, and his young wife Eurydike is marvellous - an Alexander reborn as a woman, but sadly without powerful friends or family to support her.

If I have a quibble with these books it's that Alexander is perhaps a little too perfect. He is a superb strategist of course, but also kindly, enormously talented at everything - not just as a military commander, he's also a great kithera player, for example. Merciful in victory, a considerate and generous lover and a loyal friend who cherishes his wobbly old horse and cries when his dog dies. The portrayal works in the first two books, but for me it falls apart a little in the third book. It seems out of character that someone so thoughtful and personally unselfish, afflicted by repeated health problems, would fail to anticipate at all the consequences of his death for the weak and vulnerable who depended on him.

But still. Great read, all three of them, and Eurydike has become a favorite: I want to read the AU where Eurydike effectively succeeds Alexander and sets up a Queendom that stretches from India to Macedonia. Think how surprised the Persians would be, it would be fabulous.
Tags: books, history

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