This is the first of Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, a fictional account of Alexander’s early years. I’m glad I read this as my first novel of the new year, because it’s excellent. This is a bit of a modern classic, as it was originally written in 1969, but was re-released in 2014 by Virago, with a shiny little intro by Tom Holland (author of Rubicon, my favourite popular history book). This is very much my kind of thing—historical fiction, ancient world, gay relationships. If you enjoyed Miller’s The Song of Achilles, you will probably like this.
The story follows Alexander from boyhood, where Renault charts his messy relationships with his parents, showing him trapped between their mutual enmity, often fought over or used as a weapon against the other. As Holland says in his intro, Renault doesn’t try to make the characters like modern characters—their morality is quite different—but the psychology is well drawn and complex.
As Alexander grows older, he begins a committed relationship with fellow warrior, Hephaestion. He seeks to echo the bond between Achilles and Patroclus he so admires in his favourite story, The Iliad. Their relationship is touching, but also far from simple. Renault gives insights into both their worries and inhibitions by deftly managed head hopping. It’s not a steamy relationship, so don’t expect anything like that. Alexander is unsure of physical love and doesn’t often seem very interested. There’s some ambiguity as to whether this is just his nature, or whether it’s a reaction against his father’s philandering.
I found the story immersive and captivating. From the personal relationships to the complex and often messy politics, and the ways those things intertwine, I was completely gripped from the first to the last page. When I finished, I was sorry to leave Alexander’s world. I’ve already ordered the next two books from my local library.