Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
Published in 1969
Genre: Historical fiction
“The child was wakened by the knotting of the snake’s coils about his waist.”
Those familiar with the myth of Heracles will notice its connection to the opening line of Fire from Heaven, by Mary Renault. Hera, jealous of Zeus’s infidelity, sent two snakes in Heracles’ crib in order to kill him. In this tale about the childhood of Alexander the Great, however, the snake is a friendly creature owned by his mother. Connections between the strongest of Greek heroes and Alexander abound in the novel and, as the young prince grows into his glory, the hero becomes a sort of patron god for the young conqueror whose greatness was apparent from childhood.
The story begins with Alexander as a child wise beyond his years, asking pertinent questions of Persian ambassadors and being groomed separately by his parents. He excelled in the subjects that interested him, but would give little thought to those that didn’t. Eventually, Aristotle arrives to tutor Alexander; he is one of many tutors that the boy has, though possibly the most famous. Alexander observes his father, King Philip, at court and learns how to manipulate others in a political arena.
Alexander’s relationship with his parents could be described as complex, to say the least. His father Philip conquered with ambition, and set upon Greek city-states to either take control or force terms. He was a paragon of masculinity and, when he rebukes Alexander for performing music at a feast, the young prince decides to go out and kill his first man at the age of twelve in order to return to his father’s good graces. However, pleasing one parent means upsetting the other, and his mother, Olympias, is known for her wrath.
Along with his familial connections, his relationship with Hephaistion is multi-faceted. The two become best friends, but Hephaistion becomes codependent on Alexander to the point that he always seeks to please the prince in whatever capacity possible. Olympias tries to get between the two friends by suggesting Alexander should be married, lest rumors begin to spread about him. As the son of the king, but bearing little resemblance to him, Alexander was already a common topic of gossip, especially in his aesthetic choices like bathing regularly and keeping his face clean-shaven.
Every chapter skips forward a few years beginning with Alexander at age 4 and ending when he is 19. Though this is necessary for the pace of the novel, it does become a bit disorienting, especially when characters talk about events that happened in the meantime. Names are also difficult to keep track of, despite Renault’s attempts to separate characters who had the same name in real life by offering variations. Much of the story is told from Alexander’s perspective, but it is told in the 3rd person, so there are opportunities grasped where the story is recounted by another character. One particularly interesting passage is from the perspective of Philip reading a dispatch from Alexander about a battle.
I have always been interested in ancient Greece, so I was excited when I heard there was a novel written about Alexander the Great (I know, he was king of Macedon, not Greece). However, the pacing of the novel and the amount of confusing names kept me from fully enjoying it. Perhaps I would have been more interested in the his exploits as an adult, and I do realize that Fire from Heaven is the first in a trilogy of novels, but I just didn’t find enough here to enjoy the story without reservation. This isn’t a bad book by any means; it simply didn’t keep my attention nearly as much as I thought it would.
Verdict: 3 aromatic Alexanders out of 5
Recommended for: Fans of historical fiction, fans of Greek and Macedonian history, fans of political intrigue, fans of familial drama, and those interested in the early years of Alexander the Great.
Not recommended for: Those who dislike historical fiction, fans of the film Alexander (2004), those who are easily confused, or people who think the sequel should be named “Water from Hell”.