Reviews

Book review: Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Alexander the Great #1) | Gay historical fiction and a lot of war talk

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.

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3 stars white

So, I mainly picked this up because I kept thinking about how much I lovedΒ 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 bookΒ 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.

 

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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!

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Featured image: Freepik

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14 thoughts on “Book review: Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (Alexander the Great #1) | Gay historical fiction and a lot of war talk

  1. Fantastic review! I’m a huge fan of The Song of Achilles and so I’m also on the lookout for stories that are similar. It’s a shame the Goodreads synopsis was so misleading. Although, I find it interesting that the author depicts Alexander as aromantic and asexual. I feel like it is widely believed or rumored that Alexander the Great was bisexual. So it’d be cool to read about another opinion of the matter! Also, I haven’t read many books that feature that particular community of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community! And I love to read about war strategy, but not if it comes at the cost of character development and engaging plot progression :/ I think I still might give this one a go one day! Thanks for bringing it to my attention! And I hope you find something a little more similar to The Song of Achilles πŸ˜€ I’d love to read it, if you ever do come across one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!!! Your comment means so much to me, not a lot of people have said anything about this review so I was a bit unsure about it! ❀

      I wouldn’t say that the Goodreads synopsis itself was misleading – more the lists the book was in, which were all about romance!

      That’s interesting! I had no idea he was rumoured to be bisexual. Maybe someone else has written a more romantic version of him in fiction? That would be pretty cool.

      Yeah, there aren’t a lot of books about asexual and aromantic characters. The only ones I can think of are YA contemporaries, and that’s not my favourite genre. War stategy can be really interesting, but I think because of her particular writing style, a lot went over my head. I liked the war talk in The Song of Achilles tho, so when it’s done well I do think it’s enjoyable.

      I’m glad my review hasn’t scared you off the book and you still want to give it a try! I hope you love it more than I did now that you know what to expect. I have quite a few LGBT+ historical novels on my TBR, and I still want to continue with the Alexander the Great series (I’ve heard really good things about book 2!), so I’ll be reporting back on all of those! xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Never be unsure about the reviews you post! They’re always well-written and you make some really good points πŸ™‚

        And ah ok. Sometimes Goodreads has lead me astray that way haha

        Yeah! Since I was young, I’ve been hearing that he was bisexual, but I don’t know if my sources were reliable. Probably not haha. But I hope there is a more romantic version of him in fiction! I’ll definitely be on the lookout for it now.

        YA contemporaries do well in creating diverse characters and situation. Both fantasy and sci-fi still need to work towards that. Luckily, historical fiction does pretty well in addressing diversity! And I agree, the war talk was done well in The Song of Achilles. It never became dull for me.

        Oh no, of course not! 3 star and lower reviews encourage me to read the book, actually, just so I can see what all the commotion is about. I’m a curious thing LOL. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the next book in this series! πŸ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Awww dude, you’re making me blush now haha! ❀

          If you find a promising novel about Alexander featuring his bisexuality, do let me know πŸ˜‚

          That’s what bothers me, YA contemporaries are often diverse, more so than books from other genres, but I just rarely find their premises interesting! I wish adult fantasy was more inclusive, as it is my favourite genre! There are some diverse fantasies out there that come highly recommended, but they’re quite rare.

          That’s quite a good way of reacting to negative reviews! For me it depends on what the reviewer is complaining about. If it’s something that turns me off the book, I won’t read it, but I admit that negative reviews have made me curious in the past as well πŸ˜›

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ll definitely let ya know. I’m on the hunt πŸ˜‚
            The thing about YA contemporaries is that many of their plots are so similar to one another. It’s a little hard to find one that feels really unique. I’d love to read more adult fantasy. Luckily, Red Sister is doing well on my facets of diversity. Hope I can find more like it!
            Oh yeah, if a negative review mentions something that would definitely bother me and if the reviewr provided a great amount of evidence, then I might turn a book away. But most times, I just read it myself because my curiosity is pretty powerful πŸ˜…

            Liked by 1 person

              1. Yeah, tbh I have only a few that are my favorites. I highly recommend A List of Cages, anything by Morgan Matson, and Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. And now Fangirl. All those are my favorites as of right now haha πŸ˜€

                Liked by 1 person

                1. I read Fangirl a few years ago and really liked it at the time, but I don’t think I would enjoy it as much now πŸ˜” There are some contemporaries that I love, mainly because they’re different from the usual – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Universe versus Alex Woods, and Asking for It in particular. They’re really unique and absolutely amazing.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Ah that’s a shame. I thought it was really cute! From my own experience in college, I felt I could personally relate to some of Cath’s issues/situations! I think that’s why I liked it so much. It was a throwback to my freshman year LOL. And I haven’t heard of any of those! I’ll have to check them out πŸ˜€

                    Liked by 1 person

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