Renault, Mary. Fire from Heaven.

NY: Pantheon, 1969.

If we didn’t know for sure that Alexander of Macedon was really and truly an actual person, one could be forgiven for imagining he was a mythological hero. And Renault examines both his real and his quasi-mythological nature.

This is the first book in a trilogy about the quintessential conqueror, opening with the little boy at four, trying manfully to balance out the demands of his father, Philip II, who eventually brought nearly all of Greece under his rule, and his mother, Olympias, a real piece of work who constantly worked her passive-aggressive wiles on her son and may well have been involved in her husband’s assassination. Fifteen years later, Alexander is still trying to be the very different son each of them demands. Alexander was never more than middling size but his personality commanded any room he entered. Macedon was still “barbaric” by the lights of the city-states of southern Greece, and a boy didn’t reach manhood until he had killed a man in battle. Alexander managed it at age twelve. At sixteen, he was commanding a cavalry unit, and by eighteen he was a thoroughly experienced campaigner whose soldiers adored him. And then Philip was murdered (for personal reasons, apparently) and his son had to take over both the kingdom and the planned-for liberation of the Greek cites of Asia that were under Persian control.

Renault’s style is low-key and ruminative, describing events and mostly letting the reader draw his own conclusions. The character of Hephaistion, Alexander’s closest friend and supporter as well as lover, is perhaps even more finely drawn. If you enjoyed The King Must Die, about another hero, you’ll love this.

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