Fire from Heaven, Mary Renault

I will preface this by saying that I can understand how you might not like Mary Renault’s writing. But I like her a lot, and this, the first of her books about Alexander the Great, is the first thing I ever read by her. It takes us from Alexander’s childhood through to Philip of Macedon’s death, and it is a damn good book. I love how Mary Renault makes silence and implication work for her: how something will happen, and you don’t think anything of it, and then the characters react in a way that makes you go back and look at it again, and reassess. To me this is very pleasing.

After rereading Fire from Heaven for the first time in a while, I am beginning to suspect that I was not paying any attention to it any time that I read it before. There are so many things that I didn’t remember ever reading! In past readings, I got that Alexander was fierce and loyal and awesome – still definitely true, incidentally. Mary Renault’s Alexander is one of my favorite characters ever, partly because I think Alexander the Great was cool and partly because Mary Renault does an excellent job on him. I always think it must be so difficult to write a character with charisma like a cult leader or a great general, so you really believe people would follow them, and it must be even harder when it’s a real historic character. And Alexander in this book is so great I would almost follow him to war and I am a pacifist. So.

The relationships with the other characters, I definitely picked up on that – his friendship (etc) with Hephaestion (they’re sweet), the initially simple love/hate split for his mother and father, respectively, that gets more complicated as he gets older. I love how we see this change for Alexander. As a child, his mother means security and his father is a threat. When he gets older, he develops a certain level of respect for his father in war, and finds his mother’s constant demands more and more difficult. (And more and more, if I am remembering The Persian Boy right.)

The politics though? I would say the vast majority of the political machinations going on in this book were new to me on this reread. As a younger reader, I managed to pick up on nearly all the character moments while completely tuning out what was going on around them. Like how Philip was conquering things, and how he wanted to use the Thebans to get to the Athenians, and the Thebans took him (but not Alexander!) off guard by throwing in their lot with Athens. And how an old lover was responsible for Philip’s death. Total shock to me this time around.

I was so in the mood to read this! Maybe I will get crazy and finally read The Mask of Apollo as I have been meaning to for quite some time now. I like Mary Renault. Her heroes are heroic, and the ancient times act real in her books.

  • My library actually has this whole trilogy, and I’ve been vaguely meaning to read it for ages. Now “vaguely” has become “definitely”.

    • You can probably skip the third one, Funeral Games. It takes place after Alexander dies, and I didn’t like it at all. The first two are wonderful though – I’ve heard Mary Renault accused of over-elaborate prose, but I really like her writing.

  • I read the Mask of Apollo a long time ago. I don’t remember much in particular, but it was pretty interesting. Especially all the historical details about theater.

    • When I was much younger, I started reading it (but didn’t finish), and I remember the protagonist was playing whatshisface, Hector’s son that gets killed, and started crying because the actor playing Hecuba (or Andromeda maybe?) was giving such a moving performance. And the actor hissed, “Shut up, you little bastard, you’re supposed to be dead.” I don’t know why I’ve put off reading it so long.

  • Yes! I recall that scene now, it made me laugh

  • Schatzi

    I haven’t read the Alexander trilogy, but I enjoyed the Theseus duology–and The Last of the Wine is possibly the finest Classical Greek historical novel of all time.

  • SHE

    Shatzi, if you liked the Last of the Winer, you will LOVE the Alexander books. Her style, insight, and skill definitely made strides… The Persian Boy is (in my opinion) the best book she ever wrote. The details about Socrates were pretty cool, though, huh?

  • It’s totally true. The Persian Boy is wondrous. And although I cannot find anyone who agrees with me on this, The Charioteer, which is set in the present day (hers, I mean, which was World War II), is absolutely wonderful and maybe as good as The Persian Boy. I just love the way she writes.

  • I just posted about Mary Renault, inter alia, on my own blog (http://lizcruse.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/boudicca/) and I can’t agree more with the comments above. Jenny – from memory I thought The Charioteer was First World War but be that as it may, though it’s years since I read it, it made a profound impression on me.