Review: The Persian Boy, Mary Renault

For lo, this shall be Mary Renault Week on the blog! In case you missed hearing about this (not that I’ve been shrieking loudly about it or anything), Mary Renault’s books have been released in ebook format at last! And are now available for purchase wherever ebooks are sold! Thus, this week I have decreed shall be the week in which I post only about Mary Renault. If you post about her too please tell me so in the comments and I’ll add links to my posts. Today I am reviewing The Persian Boy; on Wednesday my lovely Mum will be doing a guest post about The Mask of Apollo; and on Friday I will be posting about the Mary Renault book beloved only by me, The Charioteer.

The Persian Boy is the second book Renault wrote about Alexander the Great, and the better book, I think. Fire from Heaven takes you through Alexander’s childhood, through wonderful episodes like his meeting his lifelong friend Hephaistion and taming his best-beloved horse, Oxhead, up until the death of his father, Philip. The Persian Boy gives you Alexander through a stranger’s eyes: Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who is given to Alexander as a gift in the wake of Alexander’s conquest of Persia.

If you are only waiting for Alexander to show up (which, okay, yes, I was), the beginning of The Persian Boy can be slightly slow going. Bagoas goes through a lot before reaching the court of the Macedonians, and it can be difficult to read. But once he and Alexander meet — Mary Renault really is at her best when writing about characters she admires — everything starts firing on all cylinders. It’s because Mary Renault is spectacularly good at writing Alexander in a way that makes you understand why so many people chose to fight and die for him.

Over the years, there has been much heated debate between Mumsy and me about why she loves Bagoas best and I love Hephaistion best. We discussed it last week while I was making notes for this post, and we found that we did not disagree with any of each other’s points, but simply ended up with different emotional responses. Hephaistion and Alexander have a relationship of equals, in terms of their feelings about each other; and while of course Alexander is more powerful in worldly terms, the gap between him and Hephaistion is much much smaller than between him and Bagoas (who is a very treasured slave but still is basically a slave). Mumsy’s case is that she loves the different kind of thing Renault is trying in this book, to write about a love where there is complete trust on both sides, but where one party’s love is utterly self-abnegating. Bagos will give up anything, suffer anything, to stay with Alexander.

Regardless of where you land on this important question, Bagoas’s devotion to Alexander carries the book. Though it hardly needs something to carry it. Renault’s depiction of the episodes of Alexander’s life that we read about in Arrian and Curtius is marvelous. Where the sources provide the material for her not to invent, she doesn’t (except she adds feelings); and when there are gaps to fill, she fills them ever so plausibly.

Finally, I cannot leave this review without a word of praise for the author’s note in the back of the book. Basically the best author’s note ever. For one thing, she lays out which bits of the book are true and which she made up and why she made them up that way (hooray!). But mainly, the author’s note is fun because persnickety:

Muddled sensationalism is typical of Curtius, an unbearably silly man with access to priceless sources now lost to us, which he frittered away in the cause of a tedious literary concept about the goddess Fortune, and many florid exercises in Roman rhetoric. (Alexander, exhorting his friends kindly to remove the arrow stuck in his lung, is impressively eloquent.)


More puzzling is a present-day outbreak of what one may call blackwashing, since it goes far beyond a one-sided interpretation of facts to their actual misrepresentation. A recent popularization says only of Philotas’ execution that it was “on a trumped-up charge,” though his concealment of the assassination plot is agree on by all sources… Hephaistion is “fundamentally stupid,” though in not one of his highly responsible independent missions, diplomatic as well as military, was he ever unsuccessful… That there are fashions in admiration and denigration is inevitable; they should not however be followed at the expense of truth.

You see? Don’t you love Mary Renault already?

  • I’m liking The Mask of Apollo so far and am about halfway through, so I hope to be ready to read Mumsy’s review on Wednesday and say something about it.

    • Gin Jenny

      I’m glad you’re enjoying it! It is excellent.

  • I’ve never heard of her, but yes I am liking her. I’m yet to read about this period and as to what you said ‘hooray’ about that’s always important to me, too, and does often encourage me to read a book even if I wasn’t necessarily interested by the plot. It sounds like you get a good lesson in the history, which is brilliant.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes, you definitely get a history lesson! I’m never able to remember the difference between all the various battles, still.

  • I’ve GOT to read some of her stuff! Seriously!

    • Gin Jenny

      YES you do. Much much better than Song of Achilles.

  • Oh, how I love The Persian Boy. But I think my argument on behalf of Bagoas did not come out right: what I was really intrigued by was the fact that NO one of Alexander’s time would have been his equal. So it was fascinating to me to read this love story from the point of view of a man who recognizes that his love can never be returned on the terms by which it is given. Alexander will never adore Bagoas in the way that Bagoas adores Alexander because Alexander is a phenomenon, a creature that occurs once, perhaps, in a millennium. And, you know, you rarely see that kind of a story attempted.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh dear. I misrepresented your position. I am the worst.

  • Jo Walton

    You’re not the only one who loves _The Charioteer._ I look forward to your post about it.

    • Gin Jenny

      I know I’m not the only one who loves it! It just sometimes feels a little bit that way.

  • I am still trying to locate my copy of The King Must Die for Mary Renault Week, but now I’m awfully tempted to abandon it in favor of this.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yes yes yes! Abandon it in favor of this. I like The King Must Die just fine, but The Persian Boy is better.

      • I’m about to cave and buy The Persian Boy and The Charioteer in ebook format, but I sort of hate to because I have the feeling I’m going to love everything by Mary Renault and I’m going to want nice papery touchable copies for stacking on shelves.