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on 31 October 2014
Miss Renault's first book directly concerning Alexander the Great although he had been briefly mentioned at the end of The Mask of Apollo. As usual she takes legends or old stories and rationalises them so that they make total sense. Her dealing with the relationship between Alexander and Hephaiston is beautifully handles and she brilliantly prefigures the arrival of Bagoas who is central to The Persian Boy. It is easy to see why many of her readers thought she was a man writing under a pseudonym. One is able to understand the character and motives of not only Alexander but his parents as well. We are able to see into the minds of the ancients with no modern judgement on their activities. A fine book
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on 10 May 2014
Beautifully written first of the Alexander trilogy. I am wanting more and have already ordered the set! However do try Massimo Valerio Manfredi's trilogy too if you're an Alexander fan (some of his prose brought tears to my eyes). However, Mary Renault is highly recommended.
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on 4 May 2013
Excellent book well written and engrossing from start to finish. Look forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy
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on 21 December 2015
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on 15 March 2014
Where to begin in reviewing such a classic of historical fiction? I’ve read Mary Renault before – The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea; engrossing tales based on the legend of the Greek hero Theseus but grounded in a more historical, plausible world by Renault – but this was my first time reading Renault’s magnum opus. Fire From Heaven is the first book in a trilogy about Alexander the Great, and covers the conqueror’s life from childhood through to the moment he became king, and is far and away her best work. Frankly, it puts The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea in the shade.

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.
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on 29 September 2013
I first encountered Mary Renault's books in my teens, as they fed a fascination I had had with Ancient Greece from a young child - not the Ancient Romans, always the Ancient Greeks!

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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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 May 2012
This is the first in a trilogy of historical novels on Alexander the Great, whose phenomenal military and political achievements in the ancient world have fascinated students of history throughout the ages. How could he have created such an expansive empire before his very youthful death at the age of 33? Mary Renault's recreation of his life seems authentic, based both on the objective record, and what we know of human interactions. And her prose is lively and lucid.

"Fire from Heaven" covers Alexander's "coming of age,' and in his era, for certain individuals like him, it meant having to kill another human, which he did at the age of 12. To create the empire he did, he had to be what is called an "alpha type" today; a trait he inherited from his headstrong parents. His father was King Phillip of Macedonia. Renault portrays an equally strong mother who is worried about her son's apparent lack of enthusiasm in women. In one scene, she is goading him: "Soon your father will be making you a marriage. It is time you showed him it is a husband he has to offer, and not a wife." She is on her throne when she says this, he approaches, glaring, and looks down at her and says: "You will never say that to me again." Renault then goes on to describe the young girl of 15 who will have Alexander's virginity: "'I am here,' she said like a child repeating lessons, `because I have fallen in love with you. Please don't send me away.' He walked steadily across to her. The first shock had passed; one must not be seen to hesitate. This one was not liked the painted jeweled hetairas with their easy charm, the patina of much handling."

Renaud was a lesbian, who had a life-long partner in Julie Mullard. In 1948 they left what they considered to be the more restrictive social climate of England, and emigrated to what they considered was a more tolerate South Africa. Homosexuality in the Greek world is a strong theme in her novel, and although the actual historical record is not conclusive, she clearly implies a life-time homosexual relationship between Alexander and his youthful friend, Hephaistion. This novel was originally published in 1969, the same year that the Stonewall riots occurred in Greenwich Village. The Gay community embraced Renault; but she did not eagerly reciprocate, since she did not want to be known as simply a "gay writer."

But consider the following, which is a dialogue between Alexander and Hephaistion, in which the former quotes from a book of Plato's: "Love makes one ashamed of disgrace, and hungry for what is glorious...Suppose a state or an army could be made up only of lovers and beloved. How could any company hope for greater things than these, despising infamy and rivaling each other in honor? Even a few of them, fighting side by side, might well conquer the world." A reasonable quote to support the repeal of the subject line policy.

Other sections can also be used to support a policy opposed to having a professional army which fights foreign wars. Consider: "But it's the Thebans who will decide. You know their constitution. A moderate oligarchy they call it, but the franchise test is low; it takes in any man who can afford a hoplite panoply. There you have it. In Thebes, it's the electorate that fight in any war it votes for." Voting for a war, and then be compelled to fight in it! It is enough to make you hanker for "traditional Theban values."

Overall, Renault has produced a well-written insight into one of history's most remarkable individuals. 5-stars.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 October 2013
Renault's novel is now being released in e-book to bring her story of Alexander to a new generation. Growing up in the home of his father Philip of Macedonia, Alexander is a little boy of seven, riding, handling a house-snake, learning from his half-brother Ptolemy. King Philip is a jealous, warlike ruler - he has to be - and his only son must grow up fast.

People believed the gods might send mortals blessings or curses, might lie with mortal women and give them sons, or send the Furies to drive sinners mad. Macedonian Greeks considered everyone else to be barbarians, and Persian envoys are wearing trousers, the notorious sign of a barbarian. For their part the envoys consider the kingdom small and provincial; the king even drills soldiers himself! "Gold is the mother of armies," Philip tells his son. Philip has captured gold mines to pay his troops and invented the sarissa, or extra-long spear, by which a massed troop provided the hedgehog defence.

Alexander is sent to begin training, and ordered by Leonidas the Spartan to speak better Greek than the Macedonian barrack-room talk. His mother is outraged by the succession of girls that Philip enjoys. Through their eyes we see everyday life in Greek times; theatre, clothing, food and drink, music on kithara and lyre, with references to the gods, to the fall of Troy and the labours of Hercules. The jigsaw of kingdoms and alliances, armies paid by looting and melting down temple treasures, a culture where manhood is achieved by killing a boar and a man.

Alexander meets and tames the spirited black horse Boukephalos or Oxhead, in accordance with the writings of the first horsemaster Xenophon. Aristotle the philosopher teaches him science and statecraft. As Philip marches out to war Alexander is left to manage the lines of communication. The lad knows all the soldiers well, their strengths and failings, and cannot be manipulated by those who wish for promotion. FIRE FROM HEAVEN ends with the death of King Philip, and the e-book has a taster of the second book, 'The Persian Boy' as well as notes and photos from the respected author Mary Renault.
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on 27 May 2012
Fire from Heaven was one of my very first books that I read on the subject of Alexander the Great, here depicted in his early years up to his accession to the throne of Macedonia. It is a novel, of course, but it is what we call a historic novel as the entire story is based on facts that have come to us through ancient writers. Consequently, the greater part of Alexander's life is fiction and we should not look too closely at the details, but all in all Mary Renault manages to describe the décor and circumstances in which Alexander grew up with a great feeling of trueness since they are interwoven with historical facts.

Although Mary visited Greece only once in her life, she manages to describe the landscape and daily life very vividly and makes you feel part of the events. It is amazing to discover that she wrote this book when she was well into her sixties (1969), to be followed three years later by the controversial Persian Boy. In her later years, Mary Renault, to be pronounced as Ren-olt, managed to create her own Greek world based on what she read in ancient literature and the details she found in statues and painted vases about all facets of life in those days.

Whether you know about Alexander or not, you witness a vivid and lively account of daily life in Macedonia in the fourth century B.C. and more specifically at the Royal Court. Both Alexander's parents show themselves each with their own character, King Philip II the womanizer but highly successful warrior and leader of the peoples in and around Macedonia; Queen Olympias with her dark furies and mysterious Dionysus rites very possessive of her son. We witness how Alexander struggles within himself with this heritage, but also how he finds comfort in Hephaistion's unwavering trust and devoted friendship.

Historians have a tendency to shrug their shoulders and smile pathetically when you mention this book, but it is one of the rare occasions to come so closely to what could have been Alexander's true life in his early years. The only author from antiquity mentioning anything about his boyhood is Plutarch, all the others start with Alexander's deeds after Philip's murder when he became King of Macedonia and set out to conquer Asia. Based on the very scarce information available, the efforts of Mary Renault are even more recommendable.

Personally, I dare say that this story is very close to the truth - at least, that is my personal opinion. When I visited Pella for the first time many years ago, I had the feeling of a déjà vu thanks to her book. It was amazing to discover how skillfully she brought the ruins to life!
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I love Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy. This first book deals with Alexander's early life and ends with the murder of his father Philip. I know some people have criticised it, because she really does romaticise Alexander, but I don't care. I'm not mistaking this for history, after all - the whole 'son of the god' thing gives that away! - although her attention to detail really is incredible. And I love the attention she gives to Alexander's relationship with Hephaistion - he really was the most important person in Alexander's life and a lot of writers tend to gloss over that because of their discomfort with homosexuality. I've lost count of the number of times I've read the series and it's still as good as ever.
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