I know, I know, I’ve been gone for a while. If you read my last post you might know that I’m currently on vacation in Germany, visiting friends, and when you’re spending time with people you only see once a year, you can’t really fit blogging in. However, my best friend happens to be busy right now, so I figured I might as well catch up on some of the posts I’ve been planning for ages.
This is going to be a review of the historical fiction novel Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault, which is the first book of three following the life of Alexander the Great.
So, I mainly picked this up because I kept thinking about how much I loved The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, and I wanted more gay historical fiction, particularly something set in Ancient Greece. Mary Renault is known for her books set during exactly that period, and they are featured on a lot of gay literature lists on Goodreads, so obviously when I found a bunch of her books in second-hand shops in London, I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately, I wasn’t blown away.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a good book. But it pales in comparison with The Song of Achilles. It’s a slow read, very heavy with history and war talk, which, while interesting to some extent, grew kind of tedious after a while. The author spends a lot (and I mean a lot) of time exploring war strategy, as well as the relationships between different countries. I know that there are people out there who love this kind of stuff, and I personally enjoyed parts of it as well, but it was just too much for my reading taste. If you’re one of the people who complained about all the war stuff in The Song of Achilles, boy, this is the wrong book for you.
The novel starts with Alexander’s early childhood, and it takes ages to get to his adult years. Then my main problem with this book starts – I expected something quite romance focused, with a great exploration of the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion, but this part was very weak. Alexander was, according to Mary Renault, not really interested in sexual relationships at all; he is at no time labeled, but he is very much coded as asexual, at times aromantic, and, while this was an interesting part of the character and something I did not know about previously, it wasn’t the kind of thing I was looking for. I picked this book up because I wanted a romance in the style of The Song of Achilles, and instead got a very philosophical relationship that read more like a deep friendship, and lots and lots of war talk. Asexual and aromantic characters are as important a part of the literary LGBT+ community as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer characters, and they are greatly underrepresented in fiction, which is why I think Alexander is a valuable person to write about. I blame Goodreads for misleading me and giving me false expectations more than I blame the author, which is why the lack of romance is not the reason I gave this book a lower rating than expected.
The secondary characters felt very underdeveloped, which is a shame considering that they could have made the more info-heavy parts of the book more enjoyable. There are so many different men fighting on different sides, friends and enemies of Alexander, family members, and loads of other figures who sort of all blend into a confusing mess after a while. The names are really similar, which is understandable in historical fiction, but when the characters are exchangeable on top of that it just gets a bit much.
Despite everything, this book had a lot of good elements, and it was, as a whole, an enjoyable read. Alexander isn’t the most likable character at first, but he grows into a very sweet, intelligent young man, who often respects people more than they deserve. The representation of women wasn’t always on point, but I mostly blame actual history for that – there were some scenes where it seemed to me that Mary Renault was trying to show accurately how women were treated at the time. And considering that all the characters fell a bit flat, women being underdeveloped in this book is not something that I think is necessarily due to their gender, but just, in my personal opinion, a flaw of the writing.
The book is quite philosophical in parts, and reading about Alexander’s spiritual view of relationships and the world in general was very interesting. Even though I remember really disliking Aristotle’s philosophy when I studied it in sixth form (he was such a jerk), I liked reading about his lessons with Alexander. It was one of my favourite parts of the book, alongside Hephaistion’s unconditional love and loyalty for Alexander.
Last but not least, I really loved the author’s note at the end; it went into her research and the changes she made to make the story more accessible to her readers, particularly some names that originally were identical, and probably would have caused even more confusion.
In conclusion, this wasn’t my favourite read of the year, but it was enjoyable, and I would definitely recommend it if you’re a fan of detail-heavy historical fiction with just a dash of gay.
Have you guys read this book? Are you planning to? I’d love to chat about it in the comments below.
‘Till next time and happy reading!