An exquisitely written book, unnerving and haunting but sweet and tender at the same time.
I found this book even better than the first (Fire From Heaven). Bagoas is an excellent narrator and through his eyes Alexander is made out to be a god and a human in the same breath. I was inexorably drawn in by the tragic story, all the while dreading the inevitable end which was made even more agonizing by the feeling of reality created in the pages.
Another reviewer on Amazon (Kris Dotto) had this to say:
Renault’s mastery is impeccable. With a few well-chosen words, she conjures the images of the great Persian palaces–the ruins at Persepolis, Susa, Ekbatana, and Babylon; she recreates the travels of the Macedonian army so well that any reader who picks up her companion book “The Nature of Alexander” will look at the pictures and exclaim, “I know this! This is–” and name the very scene. But it is her characters that truly live. Bagoas is keenly intelligent, charming, courtly, sarcastic, prey to jealousy and possessiveness when it comes to his lover; his growing maturity merely adds to the pain he experiences as the affair and Alexander’s conquests progress. And Alexander is much more accessible here than in “Fire From Heaven,” which is a wonderful book but presents Alexander as all light and no fire. Here we get to see Alexander as preening boy, heroic warrior, pragmatic king, and devoted lover. It is a marvelous love story whether or not it actually happened.
But the emotional payoffs of the affair are balanced by hideous tragedies, none more affecting than the death of Hephaistion. Bagoas’ quiet desperation to keep Alexander with the sane and living is agonizing with the knowledge that Alexander did not survive his lover by more than three months. Renault foreshadows without laying it on too thick, but it’s worth noting that the portents of Alexander’s death were recorded by historians, and the ancients paid close attention to that sort of thing. The final quarter of the book is grim, with only a few moments of light, and the most poignant moment is when Bagoas, having kept watch over Alexander even after his death, finally gives way to the Egyptian priests who come to embalm the Macedonian.
It isn’t all romance and grief. Bagoas is, after all, only sixteen when the affair starts; he’s prey to insecurity about his place in Alexander’s heart, and his two antagonists are Hephaistion, Alexander’s lifelong love, and Roxane, the legendary beauty who becomes Alexander’s wife. With Hephaistion, Bagoas indulges in the sort of reverie that anyone who’s ever had a romantic rival can identify with (stopping short of cutting him into little pieces and feeding him to the dogs). Roxane, on the other hand, earns Bagoas’ hatred for good reason, and she is presented as everything Hephaistion isn’t: clinging, vindictive, and devouring. Bagoas wryly notes that Alexander has, like most men, married a woman like his mother, and it’s asides like this from him that make the story such an indulgent treat to read.