Wherever you are, I hope you are inside and warm! Thanks to Snowpocalypse 2014, I may never leave my house again. My commute home, which usually takes 15-20 minutes, took me nearly five hours last night. But Brad, Clouseau and I are all safe and home, so we have a lot to be thankful for. And the University is closed today, which means I get to start some new books! Lauren Willig had a great “if you like” blog post a year ago with a list of books to read about being snowed in, so perhaps I can start one of those.
A few days ago, my brother (hi Sib!) and I were talking about Mary Renault. If you haven’t read anything by her, and you like Greek or Roman mythology, I would definitely give her a try! I’ve read a few of her books and really enjoyed them, and my most recent one was Fire from Heaven.
The story of Alexander the Great is quite an undertaking. The politics of ancient Greece, with its kings and lords and constant wars could very easily make for a dry read. But Mary Renault has a gift for storytelling, especially storytelling that evokes Greek mythology. This is the first novel of her trilogy about Alexander, and it follows his story from the time he is a toddler living in the women’s chambers to the day he must take control of a vast kingdom and unruly army while he is still in his teens. Renault describes Alexander’s childhood with impressive sensitivity. Raised by a father and mother who were relentlessly at each other’s throats, Alexander is forced to take sides time and time again, and Renault allows the reader to see the cost of this consistent pressure on a growing boy. You can’t help but admire Alexander as he learns to navigate the waters of political and personal pressures, basically teaching himself how to be a man. He makes some mistakes, but you can see that the lessons he learns from them will enable him to be the King who forms one of the largest empires the world will ever know.
I read and loved Renault’s books about Theseus (The Bull from the Sea and The King Must Die), and I think this story is every bit as good. I can’t help but agree with what Hilary Mantel says in her introduction to this book – one of the best things about Renault’s writing is her refusal to explain or interpret ancient Greek customs and traditions through a modern lens. She doesn’t try to excuse or judge her characters’ actions. Even though the setting is completely foreign to me, I still felt like her characters were actual people, and I could understand their struggles or joys. Alexander lived over two thousand years ago, but Renault’s story made him real to me. I sympathized with his frustrations over his parents, and the scene where he first rides his famous horse, Bucephalus, was really moving.
If you’ve read Mary Renault, I’d love some suggestions for books that have a similar feel! If you haven’t, do you have any mythology-themed books you’d recommend?