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Fire from Heaven - Mary Renault

Alexander the Great lived only thirty-two years (356 - 323 BC), but in that time he attained a stature unequaled in ancient history. Celebrated as one of the greatest generals of the ancient world, he expanded his kingdom of Macedon into a vast empire, throughout Greece and extending as far as Egypt and the Himalayas. Alexander was a legend in the minds of the Romans who came afterwards, nearly a mythical hero. Suetonius reports that the Emperor Augustus, who lived 300 years later, had Alexander’s sarcophagus removed from its mausoleum so he could show “veneration by crowning his head with a golden diadem and strewing flowers on the trunk.” (Suetonius The Twelve Caesars) In Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, the Emperor Julian dreams of being the first to surpass Alexander’s victories in Persia, since in the seven hundred years after Alexander’s reign, none of the great Roman generals had done so.

Mary Renault begins her series of novels based on the life of this fabled character with Fire From Heaven. The novel covers the first twenty years of his life up to the assassination of his father, Phillip II of Macedon. In the Author’s Note, Renault acknowledges that there are no contemporaneous sources for Alexander’s life, and for his boyhood, the only reference is Plutarch, who lived a few hundred years later. The lack of historical information presents an opportunity for a historical novelist to fill in the gaps, but with the challenge to do so plausibly.

Renault succeeds in balancing the contradictions of a character who is believable as a future myth and legend, but also credible as a real person. Alexander the child, who is of course radiantly beautiful, hates having his golden hair combed and resents his little sister. As an eight-year old, though, he is quite willing to stick a dagger in a man who insults his mother, and kills his “first man” at the age of twelve. While a youth, he tames the untameable horse Bucephalus, a story which has become a legend in its own right.

Alexander and Bucephalus (image source: Wikipedia)

Phillip II and Olympia, Alexander’s parents, have a contentious relationship that disturbs their son greatly, setting the groundwork for near-Oedipal conflict later. Alexander’s incredibly close attachment to his cherished friend Hephaistion, a friendship that was to endure for their entire lives, is depicted with subtlety. A sexual relationship is implied but not explicitly depicted, which is a reasonable way of handling a topic which has been the subject of historical controversy.

At times, the story suffers from clunky exposition. Characters engage in conversation about military and political events in a way that occasionally feels contrived. The readers need some necessary background, but the style in these sections is not as smooth and enjoyable as elsewhere.

Overall, though, Fire From Heaven is engaging historical fiction, reminiscent of books like I, Claudius (though without Robert Graves’ snarky wit). The tone here is worthy of the classical subject but readable, bringing a mythical hero down to the level of a mortal, but one slightly less mortal than the rest of us.

A copy of this book for review was provided by NetGalley and Open Road Media.