Friday, November 16, 2007

Fire from Heaven

The first Mary Renault book I read was The King Must Die, which my father gave me to read when I was in 5th grade. I recall feeling like it was a very adult book. No doubt because it had sex in it. It was all thoroughly non-explicit but hey, I was in 5th grade. Anyway, I remember it being a good book with a fully-realized hero who had a definite dark streak. And it's precisely the lack of these shades of gray that is the problem with the first two books of Renault's Alexander trilogy (I haven't read the third).

I suppose the thing to know about Renault's Alexander novels is that she quite clearly adored Alexander. To the extent that he's not so much a human character in her books as a repository of ideas and virtues. There's a clear agenda: to absolve Alexander of any great crimes in some way or another while establishing what a great man he was. This attitude is more problematic in The Persian Boy because the historical Alexander commits his actual atrocities after becoming king of Macedon, but it's certainly evident in Fire from Heaven as well. Now I'm not saying Alexander was a monster, or that he should be judged outside the context of his time, but the fact remains he that he killed an awful lot of people and that should throw something of a wrench in Renault's podium building, but it seems to have no effect.

Setting aside the two-dimensional wonder of a hero, Fire from Heaven has the typical strengths of Renaults historical fiction: a vividly depicted world, a clear manner of conveying historical information, and a deep understanding of the culture she is writing about.

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