Review 1479: Funeral Games

It may surprise some readers that (spoiler!) Alexander the Great dies at the end of the second book in Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy. What, then, could the third book be about? Actually, I found it the most interesting of the three novels, as it deals with the intrigues and battles for power over his empire after his death.

Alexander died leaving no named heir and three unlikely possibilities—his half-witted half brother, Arridaios, and two unborn children by Roxane, the vicious daughter of a Baktrian hilltop chief, and Stateira, a Persian princess. Stateira was living with her grandmother, but before Stateira can find out about Alexander’s death, Roxane writes a summons purporting to be from him. When she and her sister arrive, Roxane poisons them.

This act of treachery is the first of many, as Alexander’s generals and surviving relatives struggle for power. His sister, Kleopatra, makes a play for power through marriage to one of the generals. His half-sister, Euridike, has been betrothed by Alexander to Arridaios. He is used as a pawn by various regents trying to grab power, but the downfall of Euridike and Arridaios comes when Olympias, Alexander’s mother, whom he always kept way from power, takes them prisoner.

The book follows Alexander’s legacy—what happens when the empire he reigned is taken by ordinary people. The best off of his former generals becomes Ptolemy, who sensibly retires to Egypt to form the Ptolemaic dynasty and writes a book about Alexander’s life.

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Review 1391: The Persian Boy

Bagaos, the son of an old Persian family, is ten years old when his family is murdered because his father kept faith with the new king, Arses. Bagaos is sold into slavery and made a eunuch.

Bagaos’s owner rents him out to anyone he wants a favor from, but the news of the boy’s beauty attracts a buyer. Bagaos is being trained for better things and eventually finds himself serving Darius, the new king.

When Bagaos joins the court, Darius has already been defeated once by a Macedonian barbarian named Alexander. So, Darius sends his generals to beat him. Bagaos is grateful for the relatively easy life he leads with Darius but soon finds Darius is no general.

Bagaos must suffer the confusion and savages of war until a Persian general takes him in and then presents him to Alexander as a gift. Bagaos is horrified at the uncouth behavior of the Macedonians, especially toward their king, but he soon finds himself devoted to Alexander.

The Persian Boy is the second book in Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy. It is faithfully researched and covers some of the many events of Alexander’s life as he conquered the Persian Empire and much of the known parts of Asia. (At the time, the Indian Ocean was considered the edge of the world by the Greeks.)

This is a convincing portrait of Alexander and a character study of Bagaos. Although I felt Renault nailed the psyche of a boy raised as Bagaos was, I did not enjoy this novel as much as the last because of that point of view. During the novel, Bagaos must learn to throw off the effect of the poisonous Persian court.

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Review 1332: Fire from Heaven

Cover for Fire from HeavenIt seems like I’m in the middle of a lot of trilogies lately. I just wrote up my review of the last of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy (coming soon) and in two weeks the review of the first book in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy will appear. I actually just finished reading the second book in that trilogy (review coming in a few months) and liked it enough to purchase her Levant Trilogy. Now, here’s the beginning of another trilogy. Fire from Heaven is the first book in the great Mary Renault’s trilogy about the life of Alexander the Great. Renault, of course, is known for the historical accuracy, admired by authors and classicists, of her novels set in Ancient Greece.

Fire from Heaven follows the life of Alexander from the age of four to nineteen, when he became king of Macedon. His life is plagued by the battles between his mother, Olympia, allegedly a sorceress, and his father, King Philip. Philip’s crime is to have taken additional wives, even though Olympia is at total enmity with him. She sees this as a mortal affront and teaches her children to hate him. She is also cagey about whether Philip is actually Alexander’s father, hinting that he is not.

As Alexander gets older and begins learning about fighting and diplomacy from his father, they begin to understand each other. Olympia’s machinations and Philip’s womanizing continually create problems and misunderstandings, however.

An important person to Alexander is his friend Hephaistion, who becomes his lover. The two are inseparable, and Alexander is fascinated by the Sacred Band of Thebes, a group of soldiers composed of pairs of lovers, said to fight the more doggedly because of it.

This novel is rich in the intrigues among the city-states of the area, the myths surrounding Alexander’s life, and the depth of characterization. I read it long ago but found I didn’t remember it well and am pleased to have begun rereading this trilogy.

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