Review: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

The story of the climactic last seven years of Alexander the Great’s life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. Abducted and gelded as a boy, Bagoas was sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but found freedom with Alexander after the Macedon army conquered his homeland. Taken as an attendant into Alexander’s household, the beautiful young eunuch becomes the great general’s lover and their relationship sustains Alexander as he survives assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

This book took me forever to read, but not for the usual reasons – that it’s some disappointing tome that ends up mouldering half read on your beside table. With The Persian Boy, I kept going back over parts I’d already read, savouring the wonderful prose and characterisations. It’s a much easier read than the rather confusing sequel, Funeral Games, with its plethora of characters. The only problem with The Persian Boy is that it’s too short by at least half.

Written entirely from Bagoas’ point of view, the book is alive with simple yet effective descriptions of place and era. Mary Renault’s characterisations are, as always, a delight; she produces deep insights into the key players with just a few well constructed phrases. She captures wonderfully the duality of Alexander – military leader/man and proto-God – as she does the ‘almost love affair’ between him and his army. She doesn’t shrink from showing his feet of clay, even if the tale is told through the eyes of someone besotted with him. Renault’s skill is also evident in the way that, although Bagoas tells his own story, we are aware of his faults and weaknesses, even if he isn’t.

The key turning point of the story is when Bagoas meets Alexander, where autobiography turns to romance. He falls headlong for the Macedonian king, dedicating his life to the man’s love and service. Alexander’s tender response and the developing relationship is beautifully portrayed – the love scenes aren’t in any way explicit, but written with such skill that they’re still sensual. I know that Renault has been criticised for romanticising the relationship between king and eunuch, but Bagoas’ motivation and actions ring true to life, and he’s as believable as all the other characters woven in and out of the tale. This isn’t a history book – it’s a well crafted and incredibly moving historical romance.

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14 Responses

  1. The only Renault I have read is “The Charioteer” and that is because Erastes told me I must, must, must read it. I was so blown away by her writing, it had been my intention to read all of her books. Where does one find the time? So I guess I should start with “Fire from Heaven”, no?

  2. Mark

    Finding the time – there’s the conundrum. Would love to know what miserable person made every hour only about 40 minutes…

    I didn’t start with Fire from heaven – I started with Funeral Games (mistake!). While it would be logical to read them in order, Persian Boy could be read stand alone, as long as you get the Alexander/Hephaistion thing.



  3. The Persian Boy is the only one of her ancient novels I’ve read, bringing my total to two of hers. I loved both of them, but Charioteer definitely is my comfort.

    As to finding the time, I guess it helps being single 🙂 but I don’t read at all during the day (other than reading ebooks on the pc for review) but I always read in the bath and in bed. I can’t imagine not reading–in fact I generally can’t sleep–before going to sleep.

  4. Erastes

    I’m hoping the wombats will get me Fire from heaven for my birthday. (39, in case you were wondering…)

    Bath and bed are my two reading places. That’s why I can’t get one with e-books


  5. I have to re-read her books. I read them so long ago..
    These reviews have whetted my appetite

  6. Ah, lovely to see this one here – it’s always been one of my utmost favourite reads (well, alongside her The Charioteer too) – I read it over and over again in my teenage years. Maybe time for another re-read round about now then!



  7. Jeanne

    I wish I’d discovered her years ago. For me, she was just the name on the Patrick O’Brian book cover quotes!


  8. A

    Always a time for a re-read. I think this will become an annual pleasure!


  9. This was one of the first m/m novels I ever read and I couldn’t believe it had actually been published! You’re right about the sex being sensual – I would go further and say it’s really quite erotic because you care so much about the two characters. Particularly Bagoas, though. I think he’s one of my favourite characters of all time.

    I tried to read the third in the series straight after and was very disappointed that Bagoas wasn’t the narrator (I think?). I gave up and never went back to it… but perhaps I should give it another go.

  10. Fiona

    I agree with the erotic character arising from the reader’s engagement with Alexander and Bagoas. I adore both of them – got told off good and proper by my 18 year old at weekend because I was ‘obsessed with Alexander’. Not that she isn’t…

    Bagoas isn’t the narrator for Funeral Games, and only flits in and out of the story. I’ve done a review od it here which might help.



    • YOu gotta read Funeral Games because as fine a scene as she’s ever written is in it, between Bagoas and Ptolemy, you get Bagoas from his eyes, and there’s a vivid memory of Alexander you’ve never seen before.
      I confess: I’ve read all three since Labor Day and my heart has not been my own. Read all three in the right order, and it hold together as well as anything I’ve ever read, yet each is a distinct literary approach to narration.

      • Jim

        I agree with you entirely about the distinctive approaches – these books are sheer genius.

        I’ve reviewed the other two here as well (and now I’m going to have to go and re-read the Ptolemy scene!)


  11. The Persian Boy is one of the best books I ever read. I love Mary Renault and Bagoas has been one of the characters whose inspired my own writing.

  12. Sedonia

    I’m so pleased I didn’t read her books years ago or I would have felt far too unworthy to attempt to write anything!


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