Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
originally published 1969
Vintage Books, 2nd edition, 2002
Genre: Historical fiction
Synopsis & Review: (jacket copy) Alexander the Great died at the age of thirty-three, leaving behind an empire that stretched from Greece and Egypt to India and a new cosmopolitain model for Western civilization. In this stunnign work of historical fiction, Mary Renault vividly imagines the world fo theis charismatic leader whose drive and ambition created a legend.
Fire from Heaven tells the story of Alexander’s childhood, when the young boy’s defiant character was molded into the makings of a king. His mother, Olympias, and his father, King Philip of Macedon, fought each other for their son’s loyalty, teaching Alexander politics and vengeance from the cradle. His love for the youth Hephaistion, on whom he depended for the rest fo his life, taught him trust, while Aristotle’s tutoring provoked his mind and Homer’s Iliad fueled his aspirations. He killed his first man in battle at the age of twelve and became the commander of Macedon’s cavalry at eighteen–by the time his father was murdered and he acceded to the throne, Alexander’s skills had grown to match his fiery ambition. In Fire from Heaven and two subsequent novels about Alexander’s world, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games, Mary Renault has provided a thrilling and intimate portrait of one of history’s most fascinating figures.
Mary Renault is really amazing. She’s the history scholar’s novelist. Her research for her historical novels was fantastic, and her writing excellent; the two combined to successfully recreate the periods, people, and places she wrote about in such a way that they seem alive. I’m not alone in thinking that her tale of the Peloponnesian Wars, The Last of the Wine, is undoubtedly the finest novel of Classical Greece ever written. And though current historical theory may contradict the theories posed in her Theseus duology, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, they are still stunning novels. And shoot, Fire from Heaven was just nominated for the 1970 Lost Booker Prize. But I cannot bring myself to like Alexander.
You know, Fire from Heaven is so beautifully written, and really a landmark historical novel, but I can’t bear Alexander. At least, not until pretty late in the novel, when he stops being a preternaturally precocious beast and seems a bit more human. And Renault’s skillful enough that just about every other character, no matter how unpleasant or venal, is interesting and even sympathetic. (Except perhaps Olympias, who really seems like a wretchedly selfish bitch. Philip’s okay in my book, though.) But–that may also be a personal prejudice, being as I’ve never been a fan of his. But despite my prejudice and Renault’s hero-worship, as he is written by her, Alexander was fascinating and his story compelling. And I’m sure that I will get around to reading the rest of the trilogy. Which ought to demonstrate what a good novel it is.
For historical fiction of the moderately old school, you cannot get better than Mary Renault. Her interpretations of sometimes scant historical evidence ring true, providing a solid foundation for the novel. Her genius for portraying vanished worlds—particularly alien mindsets–is like no other, and Fire from Heaven is no exception. However, expect relativism. Renault does not whitewash the very different conceptions of men, women, and gods, and of Greeks and the Other, or sexuality that were held by the peoples populating Fire from Heaven. Ethnocentrists may have trouble with this, but history–perhaps especially in fiction, when it is its most accessible for some people–ought never to be bowdlerized. Particularly good is the emphasis of the importance of the Iliad to Alexander (and Greek culture in general), and how that reflected Greek attitudes toward male love and friendships.
I know this is short n’ shallow, and such is the price I pay for delaying so long. I must suffer an INFERIOR book report, because otherwise, I’ll just never get around to them at all. I’m sure I’ll be able to think of things to say about other books (I hope), but some of these may be pretty brief. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!
Read also: The Last of the Wine et alia by Mary Renault, The Bearkeeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw
Cover: A little too busy with what, three, four fonts? And insets and an illustration. Just a little too much, though the notion is good.
“Why not enter the Games,” said Epikrates temptingly, “and take in the music contest too?”
“No. When I went to watch, I thought nothing would be so wonderful. But we stayed on after, and I met the athletes; and I saw how it really is. I can beat the boys here, because we’re all training to be men. But these boys are just boy athletes. Often they’re finished before they’re men; and if not, even for the men, the Games is all their life. Like being a woman is for women.”
“Epikrates nodded. “It came about almost within my lifetime. People who have earned no pride in themselves are content to be proud of their cities through other men, The end will be that the city has nothing left for pride, except the dead, who were proud less easily … .”
1 January – 9 January