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Fire From Heaven (The Novels of Alexander the Great) Paperback – 2 Sep 2002
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|Paperback, 2 Sep 2002||
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"Written with her usual vigor and imagination...Mary Renault has a great talent." -The New York Times Book Review
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"Written with her usual vigor and imagination...Mary Renault has a great talent."-"The New York Times Book Review
Alexander's beauty, strength, and defiance were apparent from birth, but his boyhood honed those gifts 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 taught him trust, while Aristotle's tutoring provoked his mind and Homer's "Iliad fueled his aspirations. Killing his first man in battle at the age of twelve, he became regent at sixteen and commander of Macedon's cavalry at eighteen, so that by the time his father was murdered, Alexander's skills had grown to match his fiery ambition.
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Renault has an innate sense of time and place, situating the story within its historical and cultural context with sublime skill and understanding. This is such a critical point in immersing the reader in the story. As some who loves both history and reading, it’s fair to say I actively seek out novels recreating the ancient past, and it’s equally fair to say that some of them disappoint the historian in me. I’ve read historical fiction where it’s obvious that the author has completely failed to understand the times he or she is writing about, failed to understand the culture, society, and thought of ancient peoples. For me it’s incredibly frustrating, not to mention jarring, when I want nothing more than to be immersed in ancient Rome or Egypt, only to find myself on a 21st century stage with unconvincing cardboard sets and characters spouting dialogue espousing 21st century values. It’s cringe-inducing. Thank goodness for wonderful writers like Mary Renault. A rarefied few, and I happily count Renault among their number, seem to have genuinely researched the period they’re writing about and succeeded in getting inside their characters’ heads – not to mention, skilfully conveyed this on the page, another challenge entirely. It’s a vicarious experience, and I’m pleased to say Fire From Heaven swept me away to ancient Macedon.
Characterisations are rendered not only deftly but with astonishing vividness and humanity. Renault clearly had a talent for understanding the human condition, and how to make her characters breathe with believable warmth, spirit, and life. It’s easy to forget that the Alexander presented here is a product of Renault’s imagination. His subtle and complex characterisation gives a stamp of authenticity that adds tremendously to the quality of the story. If I can believe a character could exist in real life as an actual human being, my immersion in the tale and my empathy for those characters is exponentially increased. Moreover, Renault doesn’t shy away from allowing the book to have a complex plot, allowing the characters to be subtle, contradictory, unexpected human beings, and this succeeds spectacularly.
Truly elegant and erudite.
Periodically I re-read Renault. What I most love is her ability to be deeply versed in the history, but (for the most part) to wear her history lightly and to lift these extremely complex facts (details of wars, conflicts, politics, culture) into a poetic, mythic creation of flesh and blood. Her characters seem both real living human beings, but also archetypes, dangerous, archaic, raise-the-hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff.
There is something, for me, in the curious contrasted mixture of the rational, thoughtful, philosophical, conscious Apollonian strand to Greek civilisation, and the dark, Dionysian rituals, the savagery, the barbarism. Greek history and mythology is such a weird, bizarre mix
Fire From Heaven is Volume 1 of Renault's Alexandrian Trilogy, the story of the Macedonian born Alexander the Great, from his birth, to the death of Philip of Macedon, his father (or was he - this is an important thread within the novel)
Although at times there are too many historical characters on the scene, and deciphering the many shifting alliances and wars of small states is a little confusing - particularly as there are several historical characters with the same name (3 Alexanders!) - overall this is a gripping, absorbing narrative.
Renault was of course primarily, despite her great research, a novelist, so what she has done is fleshed out and imagined the people behind the recorded facts that are there.
She is true to the spirit and the times, so that the weird, the mythic, the acceptance of the oracles, the signs, the presence of the magical is presented through the eyes of then, not interpreted as now.
Where she is most magical, for this reader, is where she rises to the poetic and symbolic. Often, in her description of the bloody, the barbaric, the destruction and savagery.
"By the clear lake of Lychnidis, the mud of combat settled, pike and eels picked clean the drifting dead. The crushed lilies slept to sprout green another year; the white acacia flowers fell like snow in the next fresh wind, and hid the blood. Widows mourned, maimed men fumbled at former skills, orphans knew hunger who had never lacked before. The people bowed to fate, as to a murrain on the cattle, or untimely hail stripping the olive trees. They went, even the widows and orphans, to make thank-offerings at the shrines;........Their gods, regarding their offerings kindly, kept from them the knowledge that they had been a means and not an end. In grief, more than in joy, man longs to know that the universe turns around him."
I received this as an ARC from the digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media, who are publishing tremendous digital versions of some classic twentieth century re-releases
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