Book review: Alexandriad trilogy by Mary Renault

“Rarely does a single novelist cast such a shadow over an entire topic in a genre of fiction. If one asks for a list of mainstream historical novels on Alexander the Great, or even on ancient Greece, the reply is usually some variation on, “You have read Mary Renault, haven’t you?” – Dr. Jeanne Reames, Professor of History, University of Nebraska

And possibly with good reason. Her Alexandriad trilogy is a comprehensive tale of the life and legacy of Alexander the great.

The first book, Fire from Heaven, traces Alexander’s early life, from childhood until the assassination of his father King Philip, which leaves Alexander poised to ascend the throne.

Cover of

Cover of Fire from Heaven

Despite the lack of information on the first 20 years of his life, Renault has used the one or two passing mentions of Alexander in various records and relied on documents and accounts from that period to draw up her telling of his formative years. She’s melded fact and fiction to create a plausible account of the political climate in ancient Greece and the influences on Alexander’s life.

But there are some serious problems with this book. For one, Renault elevates Alexander to demi-God status, making it almost impossible to connect with him. Plus, a lot of the key characters come across as extremely shallow. Olympias, Alexander’s mother, is portrayed as a beautiful witch-queen who only rants and raves and plots against her husband King Philip, who in turn is shown as a boor and a drunkard. But Philip was responsible for elevating Macedon from a primitive village to a powerhouse in Greece. His intelligence and keen sense of battle strategy don’t get justice in Renault’s novel. Hephaistion, Alexander’s closest confidant and lover, cuts a rather pathetic figure too. His sole reason for being is apparently to be loved by Alexander, as you can see from the passage below.

“At the stair-foot Hephaistion was waiting. He happened to be there, as he happened to have a ball handy if Alexander wanted a game, or water if he was thirsty; not by calculation, but in a constant awareness by which no smallest trifle was missed.”

But even more importantly, the novel itself is confusing and complicated, mainly because many of the names that Renault uses are different from what most of us are used to (like Herakles for Hercules and Kyros for Cyprus). There’s no list of the characters (which would have helped given the huge cast and very similar-sounding names), nor a timeline (which would have been excellent for readers who are not familiar with Ancient Greece). A lot of the book – especially the parts that deal with politics and the wars and intrigue – is also very clunky, reading almost like a PhD dissertation.

That isn’t to say that the entire novel is a waste of time; it does have its moments. The events leading up to and the battle at which Alexander made his first kill at the age of 12 and his mastery over the mighty steed Bucephalus at the age of 13 are particularly well written, as are some court scenes with King Philip.

Once I finished this, I despaired at the thought of having to read two more books to complete the trilogy, but I thought I might as well plod on ahead or I would never read them. And I’m glad that I did. For the second book – The Persian Boy – was quite a delight.

Cover of

Cover of The Persian Boy

Told from the point of view of Alexander’s lover Bagoas, a complete shift in narrative style from the first book, The Persian Boy grips you and pulls you into the action. It starts with Bagoas’ capture and gelding, his journey to the court of Darius, and touches on the war between Alexander and Darius from the perspective of someone who is far removed from the action. But once he becomes part of Alexander’s camp and eventually his lover, Bagoas’ first person narrative is fascinating. Alexander is much more accessible in this book than in the first one, as Renault draws a vivid portrait of the man in all his dimensions – from a preening boy to a heroic warrior and charismatic military commander, pragmatic king and devoted lover. Despite being madly in love with Alexander, Bagoas also sees Alexander’s faults – his need for the love and admiration of his troops; his huge ego and anger, which led him to kill a trusted officer in a drunken rage; and his obsession with conquering the world. Alexander’s prowess as a military commander and his tactical maneuvers on the battlefield are also brought out well.

The part that I liked best was that the novel was told from the point of view of a Persian boy, who was in the perfect position to sense Alexander’s growing fascination with Persia and its customs, and his (almost egoistical) desire to be treated with all the courtesies due to an Emperor. This was in direct contrast to his Macedonian soldiers, who saw Persians as sub-human and mocked their culture, and who were used to easy accessibility and informal bantering with their King.

Bagoas’ character is also well drawn – he’s sharp, charming, and knowledgeable about Persian court intrigues, and is also intensely jealous when it comes to Alexander. His quiet desperation to keep Alexander in the land of the living after the death of his life-long friend and companion Hephaistion is moving. Perhaps the most poignant moment is when, after keeping watch over Alexander’s dead body, Bagoas quietly gives way to the Egyptian priests who come to embalm the Macedonian.

Funeral Games (novel)

Funeral Games (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once I finished reading this book, I was eager to begin Funeral Games, the final part of the trilogy, which covers the 15 years following Alexander’s death, when his only direct heirs were two unborn sons and a dim-wit half-brother. Needless to say, there was bitter fighting among his wives, distant relatives and generals, all of whom wanted to lay claim on the vast lands that Alexander had conquered. But the increasingly undisciplined Macedonian army, tired of the long war and of being far away from home, proved to be difficult to tame.

Renault tells the tale from the point of view of the various characters who were vying to gain ascendency to the throne. There’s plotting and double-crossing and backstabbing, with quick rises and equally quick and fatal falls. Renault also introduces some new characters in this book. There’s Arridaios, Alexander’s retarded half-brother who had a small part in Fire From Heaven; and Philip’s grand-daughter Eurydike, who is as ambitious as Olympias, but lacks her shrewdness. Sadly, she comes across as a naive young girl who is unable to understand the pulse of the Macedonians or to think of the long-term consequences of her actions.

The only character to come out of the mess clean is Alexander’s half-brother Ptolemy. Realizing that no one could take Alexander’s place, he stakes his claim over Egypt, leaving the rest of the empire for the dogs to fight over, in a manner of speaking. He actually went on to turn the satrapy of Egypt into one of the mightiest kingdoms of the Hellenistic age. And knowing that most of the events described in this book actually happened makes it an even more fascinating read.

Having read the entire trilogy, I’d kind of agree with Gore Vidal’s statement that

“Mary Renault’s Alexandriad is one of the twentieth century’s most unexpectedly original works of art.”

If you are interested in this legendary figure, you should pick up these books (though you could skip the first one if you’d like).

Buy on Amazon:

Fire From Heaven

The Persian Boy

Funeral Games

Disclaimer: I got all the three books from Random House India, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

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  1. Ooh, I have been wanting to read these books for ages. I just have never managed to find it anywhere. Awesome that Random House sent you these books for review 🙂

  2. The first book sounds like quite the turn off, but seeing as the series does improve I would probably go ahead and read them all. Thank you for reviewing the whole series– it puts it all in perspective.

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