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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?)
18 of 18 people found this review helpful
Flawless narration, superb narrative and exquisite attention to the craft of writing riveting historical fiction.
3 of 3 people found this review helpful
What a wonderful gift, to be able to flesh out historical characters in such a convincing way! Excellent narration, too.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
This is an epic book for an epic subject, and I enjoyed every bit of its length, detail and authenticity. I have a real sense of understanding of Alexander and his time. It does not paint a picture of him as a perfect person but a believable one.