The Persian Boy traces the last years of Alexander's life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. Abducted and gelded as a boy, Bagoas is sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but finds freedom with Alexander the Great after the Macedon army conquers his homeland. Their relationship sustains Alexander as he weathers assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a sometimes mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper. After Alexander's mysterious death, we are left wondering if this Persian boy understood the great warrior and his ambitions better than anyone.
"Mary Renault's portraits of the ancient world are fierce, complex and eloquent, infused at every turn with her life-long passion for the Classics. Her characters live vividly both in their own time, and in ours" (Madeline Miller) "All my sense of the ancient world - its values, its style, the scent of its wars and passions - comes from Mary Renault. I turned to writing historical fiction because of something I learned from Renault: that it lets you shake off the mental shackles of your own era, all the categories and labels, and write freely about what really matters to you" (Emma Donoghue)
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Mary Renault wrote eight historical novels set in ancient Greece. All eight are both brilliantly literary and deeply rooted in historical scholarship, and despite that are also just plain great reads. Of the eight, at least two are generally considered to be masterpieces: "The King Must Die," a realistic portrayal of archaic Greece and the legends of Theseus; and "The Persian Boy," the second book of her trilogy centering on the personality and achievements of Alexander the Great.
The complete Alexander trilogy is now available on Audible. "Fire from Heaven," covering Alexander's life from early childhood to the death of his father Philip of Macedon, is a third-person narrative, sometimes dense but completely alive. The final book, "Funeral Games," deals with the aftermath of Alexander's death and the partitioning of his empire. It is also a third-person narrative, and is weakened by a lack of focus--there are many players in these funeral games--and by being of necessity set in a time of great confusion.
Between these two lies "The Persian Boy," a first-person narrative by Bagoas, a young Persian of noble birth whose family is massacred in the wake of a palace coup. Bagoas, a child of transcendent beauty, is spared death but becomes a spoil of war, sold to a slave dealer who has him gelded. As a eunuch, the enslaved youth's beauty and nobility eventually bring him to the attention of the rich and powerful, and he is taken into the royal household as a body servant and "pleasure boy" to the Great King Darius, soon to go down in history for his defeat at the hands of the young Alexander of Macedon.
A Persian eunuch named Bagoas is in fact briefly mentioned in contemporary biographies of Alexander. From this minor mention Renault creates an enthralling narrator. Presented as a gift to the conqueror, Bagoas becomes Alexander's squire, interpreter, companion, lover, and advisor as the army traverses the Persian empire. There are battles throughout the book, but the emphasis is on Alexander the man, not the general. Bagoas loves and idolizes Alexander, blind to the hubris in the conqueror's character, a flaw that becomes more evident as the narrative progresses to its bitter conclusion (it is no spoiler, I think, to say that Alexander died young).
"The Persian Boy" is a remarkable vision of two cultures, each of which considers the other to be barbaric, and of an Alexander who transcends these prejudices. He wishes not so much to conquer as to meld, taking as his example Cyrus the Great, who merged the Persians and the Medes into the most powerful empire of its day.
I first read this book as a teenager, and have re-read it a number of times since. As I learned more ancient history, I appreciated "The Persian Boy" more and more. There are of course other and far less flattering interpretations of Alexander's character, but I confess Bagoas's viewpoint is the one that has stuck with me.
One final note, or perhaps warning. Although there is no explicit description of sexual acts in "The Persian Boy," Bagoas's gelded state and training in the arts of "the inner room" are intrinsic to the book. This is a culture (in fact two cultures) in which male bisexuality is regarded as normal, and that Bagoas and Hephaistion were Alexander's lovers is presented as simple and straightforward fact (Alexander also marries the daughter of Darius and the Bactrian princess Roxanne and fathers children on both of them). If this aspect of Hellenic culture makes you uncomfortable, I'd reluctantly recommend skipping this book. You might try "The King Must Die" instead, which I hope will come to Audible in the not-to-distant future (and is it too much to hope that Dan Stevens or Nicholas Boulton might agree to narrate it?)