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The Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault
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The Alexander Trilogy

by Mary Renault

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Sometimes there are odd and pleasing correspondences between books read concurrently, like last year I read The Magus and then read Amongst Others, wherein the protagonist reads and describes her reaction to The Magus. The correspondences between The Alexander Trilogy and The Deptford Trilogy aren't quite as direct, but they're still striking, unexpected and enjoyable. The Detpford Trilogy is largely concerned with Jungian archetypes, with the middle book essentially one long portrait of Jungian therapy. Fire From Heaven, the first of the Alexander Trilogy begins with an episode so drenched in Freudian imagery one expects to see an Austrian gentlemen from circa early 20th century with a neat grey beard sitting with one leg crossed over another in an attitude of polite attention, waving a smoking cigar in an invitation to the protagonists to please continue their tableau.

The book opens with child Alexander waking in the middle of the night to find himself in the coils of a snake. (Alexander's father's family claims descent from Herakles, played by Dwayne Johnson.) Taking a moment to coolly assess his situation, he concludes that the snake is not poisonous and reckons it's one of his mother's, and resolves to return it to her. Slipping with strategic cunning past no less than two guards, he enters his mother's bed-chamber and wakes her up, whereupon she informs him that it's not her snake, but a snake that must be specially his. he gets into bed with her, demands that she tell him she lives him best and promises to marry her when he's six. Then father arrives, drunk and determined to avail of his conjugal rites, stripping off. Olympias hides Alexander under the sheets and tells Philip to leave. Philip is furious and berates her. Alexander springs to Olympias' defence. Philip is astonished and horrified and throws him out the door, where the guard picks him up and comforts him.

Now, in the hands of a lesser writer, this might come across as a bit lurid and melodramatic. In the hands of Renault, it is lurid and melodramatic and astonishing, setting the template for Alexander's young life, his devotion to his indomitable mother, his antagonism with his powerful father, his turning for comfort to his father's soldiers. But he also finds he ad his father are more compatible and sympathetic than either will grudgingly admit, and that his mother's ruthless efforts to control him and spite his father is more of a threat than his father. Through this frightful familial warfare he threads his own way, acquiring an education and a following and a gathering legend. Devoted to the story of Achilles, he acquires his own Patrokles in Hephaistion. Though he himself is close to celibate and the book is never sexually explicit, the passages dealing with their physical and emotional relationship are awash with a beautiful eroticism.

The Persian Boy has its correspondence with The DFeptford Trilogy, too: The eponymous narrator is taken and abused just as Paul Dempster was in World Of Wonders. Bagoas, after his family is betrayed and murdered in a Persian power struggle is castrated and sold as a eunuch. Harrowing and horrible though this is, his ultimate position as bed mate to the Persian king, Darius, could be a lot worse. Alexander invades, defeats Darius, and Bagoas finds himself presented to Alexander as a servant. Adjusting to the coarse, easy more informal manners and ways of the Macedonians after the elegant mannered splendour of the Persian court is difficult, but Alexander, unlike most of his soldiers and generals, does not view Persian ways as barbaric or contemptible, and intends to treat his conquered peoples as equal with his fellow countrymen. Begoas falls deeply in love with Alexander, to which Alexander responds, and as Alexander drives east into Asia their relationship grows deeper and Begoas becomes a permanent fixture in Alexander's tent.

So this is a monumental, awe-inspiring novel told in a singular voice, filled with the colour and richness and terrors of the ancient world, evoking the inimitable figure of one of the most amazing people to ever walk the earth, who conquered most of the known world simply by making his army love him. It's a novel that moves from degradation and horror to glory and joy to grievous tragedy, an epic of human experience. This is the middle novel of a trilogy as triumphant center-piece.

Funeral Games is the book that George RR Martin fans might cuddle up to, a riveting narrative of Alexander's successors, all of whom try to be Alexander, none of whom succeed. Riot and mutiny, confusion and acrimony, murder most incredibly foul ensue as the generals try to control the willful Macedonian army without a clear, acceptable heir. Only Ptolemy is smart enough to recognise the limits of his ambition, heading straight for Egypt while others squabble over the regency. Everyone ends badly, and it's hard to feel sorry for most of them, except Alexander's poor brain-damaged brother declared king and married to a fiercely ambitious young woman, becoming a puppet and a target. Beautifully written, full of incredible incidents straight out of recorded history, with even the most monstrous characters drawn with a kind of sympathetic humanity that nonetheless concedes nothing to their terrible deeds and ultimate fates, Funeral Games is a elegaic winding-down of the Alexander Trilogy, sad and desperate and catastrophic. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
I love Fire from Heaven, have somewhat mixed feelings about The Persian Boy (on the one hand, the first-person narration by Bagoas gives us interesting insight into Alexander and Macedonian/Greek culture, on the other hand the narration feels limiting) and initially found Funeral Games quite boring - the second time ever (in October 2007) was much more rewarding, but made me yearn for a different type of middle volume yet again. ( )
  queen_ypolita | Mar 18, 2008 |
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All very heroic, and also extremely convincing: once you've read these books, you'll have trouble getting the shiny version of Alexander, and of history, out of your head. And nothing else you read, be it Plutarch or Arrian, is likely to change that. My colleague John Crace says that in 1970 this would have been far too populist a book to win; now that Renault is dead, and also firmly out of vogue, perhaps she'll have a chance (of winning the 'lost Booker'). Go Mary!
 
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A special three-in-one edition of Mary Renault’s acclaimed historical novels about the life and times of Alexander the Great “Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”—Hilary Mantel Fire from Heaven is a gripping account of the formative years of Alexander’s life. The story tells of his complex relationship with his parents; of his two great bonds—to his horse, Oxhead, and to his dearest friend and eventual lover, Hephaistion—and of the army he commands when he is barely an adult. Coming of age during the battles for southern Greece, Alexander the Great first takes someone’s life at age twelve and swiftly eliminates his rivals as soon as he comes to power, emerging in this novel as a captivating and complex figure. The iconic Persian Boy centers on the Macedon king as seen through the eyes of his lover and most faithful attendant, the eunuch Bagoas. When Bagoas is very young, his father is murdered and he is sold as a slave to King Darius of Persia. Then, when Alexander conquers the land, he is given Bagoas as a gift, and the boy is besotted. This passion comes at a time when much is at stake—Alexander has two wives, conflicts are ablaze, and plots on his life abound. The result is a riveting account of a great conqueror’s years of triumph and, ultimately, heartbreak. In Funeral Games, a bloody struggle for power rages after the death ofAlexander, leaving an empire that extends from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River. The power players include Ptolemy, two father-son teams, and a cadre of influential women—not least of whom is Eurydike, whose plan is to marry Alexander’s disabled brother, Arridaios. Brimming with outsize personalities, brazen plots, and a sweeping sense of history, Funeral Games brings to vivid life the world of Alexander the Great, and the seismic tumult in the wake of his death.This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary Renault including rare images of the author.… (more)

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