Book Review – Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault

Originally published in 1969, Fire From Heaven tells the story of Alexander the Great’s childhood all the way up to the year he turned eighteen. The novel belongs in the category of historical fiction, meaning that the sketch is based on historical events, but has been coloured by the author’s imagination. This genre appeals to me because such books usually teach something about culture and social norms, while at the same time attempting to paint a portrait of some important figure in history. Not all of it is fiction; most authors use historical documents and whatever resources are available in order to relate events as they actually happened. The point of historical fiction is to offer a personal and intimate look as to why people did what they did and why certain things came to be.

A brief bio: Alexander the Great was the son of Philip II of Macedon, Macedon being a kingdom that eventually came to rule over her former Greek masters (Athens, Sparta, Thebes). When his father died and he took control of the throne and the military, Alexander finished what his father started, maintaining dominance over the Greek city states, and began and finished the conquest of Persia (modern day Middle East). His claim to fame is that he never lost a single battle during his entire life.

Having read more than half of the Masters of Rome series and all of A Dream of Eagles, I was hooked on the genre of historical fiction, especially those pertaining to ancient war and politics, so Alexander the Great was the next natural choice for me to read about. This review will consider the plot, characters, and narrative. There will be some spoilers.

Why did Alexander cross the road? To conquer your city.

Plot

The first of a trilogy, this novel deals primarily with Alexander’s childhood, and in consequence the plot revolves heavily around his mother, Olympias, and father, Philip, and they don’t get along particularly well. Olympias was Philip’s fourth wife, and their marriage only happened because it was customary for kings to marry the daughter or sister of the dude whose kingdom he just conquered, or to secure a political alliance. Philip wanted to conquer Persia, which was to the east, so he needed to make sure he wouldn’t get stabbed in the back from the west, where Epirus was, hence he married the sister of the king of Epirus.

The author makes an effort to establish Alexander’s personality, both as a result of his own natural disposition (he was quite the little genius) and the events around him. As Alexander grows up he observes his father’s battle tactics as Macedon continued to expand and take over little cities around her. From his mother he learns much in the way of political tactics; since Philip has many wives, Alexander’s status as heir could be jeopardized at any moment by the whims of the king.

Another major plot point is the development of Alexander’s closest friends, particularly that of Hephaestion. Now, no one knows if Alexander was gay or not, but he was heavily influenced by Achilles, who is more openly portrayed with his gay lover, Patroclus. During those ancient times, a strong relationship between two males was thought to be the best and highest form of all relationships, whether it was sexual or not. In any case, for this novel Hephaestion is most definitely in love with Alexander, and while we don’t see anything explicitly homosexual, his character is the epitome of devotion, obsession, and tenderness. We see, though this character, how Alexander charmed and won the hearts of those around him, and such a characteristic is necessary for one who will charge into battle head-on.

Characters

Alexander is a charismatic and energetic character, but the author skillfully stops short of making him perfect. We all know Alexander is going to gain a legendary reputation, but in this novel he is portrayed as a needy and jealous child, who grows up to be a man craving attention and adoration. His relationships with both his parents alternate between love, disappointment, and rage.

Olympias is the Queen and mother of Alexander. She is thought to be a witch, capable of casting spells that manipulate and harm other people. In reality, she is fiercely resentful of her husband, knowing he has and will continue to take other wives. What she wants is for her son to be the next king, in order to secure her status as ruler. She is a proud noblewoman, and is taken by surprise when Alexander is old enough to decide that he will no longer be ruled by her.

Philip is the typical gruff and rough father/husband. He is a boor, but also a tactical genius. It was his planning and military designs that set the foundation for Alexander’s immortal army. Even so, he is portrayed as a sex-crazed drunk, fueling the animosity of his wife and son. He has his own plans regarding Alexander’s future and his conquest of Asia, and it is both his personality and what he wants that clashes against Alexander’s (and Olympias).

What we get, then, is a family feud that involves not only these three, but Philip’s other wives and children, each with their own political aspirations. It’s the classic royal family drama, and while it’s not as extensive as Game of Thrones, the contained story does a good job keeping up the tension and conflicts.

Why did Alexander cross the river? To conquer your country.

Narrative

This was the novel’s weakest point by far. Many times from beginning to end it was difficult to follow what was happening. At first I thought the author was trying to replicate ancient dialects and speech patterns, but that shouldn’t apply to a third-person omniscient voice. It’s just a case of bad and unclear writing that could’ve spent way more time on the editor’s desk. Sometimes you can’t tell who’s speaking, or even what it is exactly that they’re talking about.

Regardless, it isn’t difficult to follow the overall story: we are watching a military prodigy grow up. Still, I find it strange that this novel was published after Mary Renault’s claim to fame (The King Must Die). Surely her writing couldn’t have gotten worse?

In Conclusion…

It’s less then well-written, but the subject matter is interesting enough for the writing to be forgiven. Alexander the Great is one of history’s more prestigious figures, and if the ancient era were to have been extended for a few more centuries, there is no doubt that he would’ve been made into a god.

This first novel establishes the political world in which he grew up. The next two novels supposedly follow his military conquest of Persia, his marriages, and his eventual death. It is likely I will also read and review the next two books, but due to the lacklustre and clumsy narrative, it won’t be a priority.

This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading!

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