Review: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

At 20, when his reign began, Alexander the Great was already a seasoned soldier and a complex, passionate man. This novel tells the story of the boy Alexander, and the years that shaped him.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

It seems illogical to read a set of books starting with the last and working back to the first, but with Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy it almost feels the right way round. There are no real spoilers – this is based on history – and by reading about the older Alexander before the younger, the reader can look for clues in his childhood to the construction of his character. For example, there’s a scene in Fire From Heaven where the boy prince meets some Persian visitors and is intrigued by the handsome eunuch who attends them. This makes more satisfying reading against a background of knowing The Persian Boy – otherwise it might be read, passed over and the significance lost.

Fire from Heaven is written in the third person narrative style of Funeral Games and chronicles the wars and intrigues of the great man’s formative years, but it’s a more satisfying read. There isn’t the confusing panoply of characters and there are plenty of tender moments between Hephaistion and Alexander. Miss Renault’s characterisation is, as usual, spot on and her skill lies in giving her readers, in a short scene or a few words, a clear and deep depiction of her protagonists. King Philip, Olympias and Demosthenes are particularly well drawn in a book of well portrayed characters.

The key theme of the book is power struggles – the Macedonians against the Athenians for possession of southern Greece, Philip against Olympias for the loyalty of their son, Alexander against the world for his birthright and destiny. This is a case where the reality of historical events exceeds fiction – you couldn’t make up Alexander’s story and have the world believe it. Yet Miss Renault makes the man believable, all too human and fallible at times and yet a great king in the making. The other thread is the development of two great love affairs – Alexander and his army and Alexander and Hephaistion. The intimate scenes between the two lifelong friends are portrayed with tenderness and sensuality – as in The Persian Boy, much is conveyed in few words. The most intimate scenes are told from Hephaistion’s POV and are stronger for it – Alexander seems unknowable and is better revealed through the eyes of those who adore him.

My only criticism with this book is that the chronology of their physical relationship seems unclear. What appears to be a classic ‘first time’ scene follows a passage where the other young men pay up on bets that the two have gone to bed. One can’t criticise the prose, though, especially some of Hephiastion’s thoughts on his lover: “Hephaistion was thinking how fragile his [Alexander’s] rib cage seemed. How terrible were the warring desires to cherish and crush it”.

I would recommend Fire from Heaven to anyone who likes a good love story and who wants to see the story teller’s art at its best, a lesson in how less is often more.

Buy from Amazon UK Amazon USA Powells

2 Responses

  1. For some reason I seem to have missed reading this book, even though I enjoyed The Persian Boy so much. I really must remember to get myself a copy. Thanks for the review, and for reminding me!

  2. Fiona

    My pleasure. I think you’ll enjoy it.


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