Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault
published in 1969
I know I said I wouldn’t finish this today, but I surprised myself! I’ll have to edit my monthly wrap up post accordingly. I can’t believe I actually finished this in April.
Coming in at around 3 months, this is the longest it’s taken me to finish a book in years. That isn’t to say that I didn’t love it. I did. But make no mistake: this book is hard. Renault’s prose is gorgeous but dense; pages upon pages upon pages are devoted to military strategy; characters appear without proper introduction because of a certain amount of knowledge already expected from the reader; the third-person omniscient narration is at times difficult to follow. Verbose and academic, this isn’t exactly one to take to the beach this summer.
But I loved it.
“He stood between death and life as between night and morning, and thought with a soaring rapture, ‘I am not afraid’.”
This book is beautiful. Immersive, lyrical, and intelligent, Renault gives us a truly credible window into the world of Ancient Greece, and into the life of Alexander in particular.
Fire from Heaven is about Alexander the Great before he was Alexander the Great – when he was just Alexander, son of Philip II and Olympias, tenuous heir to the Macedonian throne.
Alexander only lived for 32 years, from 356 – 323 BCE, but in that time, became one of the most accomplished military strategists in history, creating one of the largest empires in the ancient world, that extended into Egypt as well as Asia. Even during his lifetime, Alexander’s character became almost mythologized. No wonder countless books – fiction and nonfiction – have been written in an attempt to understand him, to humanize this man who was the cynosure of all of Greece, who seems too legendary to have ever been mortal.
But Mary Renault does just that. There are no first-hand accounts of Alexander’s early life, as Renault tells us in her afterward, and this book is an attempt at recreating this period of Alexander’s life, drawing on the few sources that do exist. Raised by two parents who openly disdain one another – haughty, manipulative Olympias, and proud, cruel Philip – much of Alexander’s childhood is characterized by this tension. Alexander, the boy we first meet and the man he becomes, is kind, bright, forgiving; but he’s also impulsive and stubborn; ambitious but without a clear path leadership, as the question of his birthright and Philip’s chosen successor dogs him through adolescence. In short, though the Alexander that Renault creates is in many ways a product of her imagination, he’s also clearly been derived from intensive research; his fictionalized personality dovetailing with the historical records of his character.
Renault also famously, controversially, depicts the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion to be a romantic one. While the romance is just about as explicit as you would expect from a novel written in 1969 (i.e., not very), it’s an undeniable force to this story, which adds yet another compelling layer to this novel already so rich in detail.
Fire from Heaven is not for the casual reader. It’s a good introduction to Alexander the Great… if you truly want to learn about Alexander the Great. While it is historical fiction, this book is decidedly strong on the history and light on the fiction. Renault’s research is thorough, and undoubtedly will not be of interest to readers hoping for a fast-paced story. There actually isn’t much action to be found here, despite the numerous battles recounted. This is a sort of quiet historical reimagining, that in some ways serves as an elaborate preface to the latter two novels in Renault’s Alexander series – The Persian Boy and Funeral Games, both of which I look forward to reading.