Queer Classics: The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

the-persian-boy-coverSecond in Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy, The Persian Boy follows the story of Bagoas, the Persian eunuch who Alexander falls in love with, and is entirely from his point of view, in first person, unlike the other two books in the trilogy.

Oh, my heart. I loved this book. The detail, as Bagoas follows Alexander’s campaigns across the world, is breathtaking. I could have stayed in this world forever. It’s such a huge story, and Bagoas can only tell a small part of it, but I like that his perspective is limited in that way. It makes the story much more personal.

I also loved the main character. It’s quite unusual to have a male lead who is feminine and submissive, and that makes a nice change, especially given the subject matter of the story. It’s such an inspired choice by Renault. Whilst, in the first book, Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion seems to draw strength from the fact Alexander can be his relaxed, private self around Hephaestion, his relationship with Bagoas seems to allow him an outlet for his role as a divine hero, someone who is admired, as well as for his love of Persia. I think Renault shows how the two relationships complement each other, and Bagoas comes to accept that, despite his jealousy of Hephaestion. The relationship also highlights the racial tensions that Alexander faces from his own people, as he embraces the culture of a foreign land.

I hoped, all along, that Bagoas and Hephaestion might come to more of an overt understanding, but they do come to understand each other, in a way that is left unspoken. This is one of the ways that Renault captures the morality and behaviour of the time. In a modern book, the two would have inevitably had a heart to heart, but given the differences in the roles and statuses, and Bagoas’ own conservatism, it makes sense that they don’t.

My only major criticism is that this book doesn’t treat women particularly well, in the small space they’re given. To an extent, it reflects the times, but I think there’s also some prejudice on Renault’s part. Queen Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Darius III, is the only female character who comes out with any real dignity or strength.

So, lovely flexible gender representation on one hand, and not on the other. If you can get past the female characters (as I say, they play a tiny part), it’s an amazing book. I guess it’s going to be a subjective thing whether that’s a deal breaker, or not. While I admire this book a lot, for all the reasons I’ve said, I may not go on to read any more of Renault after this trilogy, because that could get grating. These generally seem to be considered her best, anyway.

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