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Persian Boy Paperback – August 7, 2014
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'Renault's masterpiece. One of the greatest historical novels ever written' SARAH WATERS
In the second novel of her stunning trilogy, Mary Renault vividly imagines the life of Alexander the Great, the charismatic leader whose drive and ambition created a legend.
The Persian Boy traces the last years of Alexander's life through the eyes of his lover, Bagoas. Abducted and gelded as a boy, Bagoas is sold as a courtesan to King Darius of Persia, but finds freedom with Alexander the Great after the Macedon army conquers his homeland. Their relationship sustains Alexander as he weathers assassination plots, the demands of two foreign wives, a sometimes mutinous army, and his own ferocious temper. After Alexander's mysterious death, we are left wondering if this Persian boy understood the great warrior and his ambitions better than anyone.
'Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us' Hilary Mantel
'The Alexander Trilogy stands as one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century . . . it represents the pinnacle of [Renault's] career . . . Renault's skill is in immersing us in their world, drawing us into its strangeness, its violence and beauty. It's a literary conjuring trick like all historical fiction - it can only ever be an approximation of the truth. But in Renault's hands, the trick is so convincing and passionately conjured. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Persian Boy . . . Bagoas is a brilliant narrator. Rendered unreliable by his passion, he is always believeable and sympathetic . . . His Persian background allows him to see the king and his Macedonians through the questioning eyes of an alien' - Antonia Senior, The Times
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The Alexander Trilogy stands as one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century . . . it represents the pinnacle of [Renault's] career . . . Renault's skill is in immersing us in their world, drawing us into its strangeness, its violence and beauty. It's a literary conjuring trick like all historical fiction - it can only ever be an approximation of the truth. But in Renault's hands, the trick is so convincing and passionately conjured. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Persian Boy . . . Bagoas is a brilliant narrator. Rendered unreliable by his passion, he is always believeable and sympathetic . . . His Persian background allows him to see the king and his Macedonians through the questioning eyes of an alien'―Antonia Senior, The Times
Renault's skill is in immersing us in their world, drawing us into its strangeness, its violence and beauty . . . a literary conjuring trick . . . so convincing and passionately conjured―The Times
Renault's masterpiece. One of the greatest historical novels ever written―Sarah Waters
Mary Renault's portraits of the ancient world are fierce, complex and eloquent, infused at every turn with her life-long passion for the Classics. Her characters live vividly both in their own time, and in ours―Madeline Miller
About the Author
- Publisher : Virago Press Ltd (August 7, 2014)
- Language : English
- ISBN-10 : 1844089584
- ISBN-13 : 978-1844089581
- Item Weight : 13.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.96 x 1.57 x 7.8 inches
- Customer Reviews:
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Despite enjoying Fire from Heaven, I was reluctant to continue with The Persian Boy. I assumed it was written in a traditional, stilted, third-person account; like the former which took me almost a month to complete it. Many months later, upon realising that TPB was actually written in a first-person account, i.e. Bagoas, I picked it up immediately. And I was truly enraptured by the brilliance of it.
Writing from Bagoas' perspective has its pros and cons. While it makes reading this a lot easier, I felt disengaged from it. I had wanted to witness Alexander's great conquests; like the Battle of Issos, Battle of Arbela, his Indian campaign, and a great many other which I couldn't remember because it was only mentioned in passing. After reading David Gemmell's Troy series and realising I quite dig the military tactics and battle strategies, I was hoping for that in TPB. What makes Alexander so great is him unconquered in battles and being one of the most successful commanders. I was disappointed that this significant aspect of his life was not the main focus in TPB.
The romantic aspect of TPB was not what I had expected either. Written from Bagoas' perspective, the romantic feeling felt one-sided. And perhaps, it was just that. While we witness Bagoas undying love, loyalty, and devotion towards Alexander, we only caught glimpses of his affection towards Bagoas; sweet whisperings of nothing. It was inferred that Alexander 'was in love with giving, almost to folly'. That Bagoas was explicitly mentioned in sources as Alexander's eromenos simply puts him above the rest of his common men. But Hephaistion is in a class of his own.
It was Alexander and Hephaistion's relationship I was craving for. The third-person account in Fire from Heaven hid no secrets that Hephaistion loved Alexander. And even if the love is, perhaps, unrequited, one could bear witness that the former did take up a large portion of his heart.
Alexander did in fact went delirious shortly after Hephaistion's death; the exuberant funeral pyre, the public mourning, the attempt at raising Hephaistion to be a god. However, since this was in Bagoas' perspective, one could not witness the intense pain Alexander felt at the death of his beloved. Again, I was robbed off this.
His determination to establish a Persianate society among ALL his people; adopting the elements of the Persian dress, the prostration, the massive dowries for the mass marriage of his Macedonian senior officers to Persian noblewomen, one could infer that Alexander has a strong attachment to Persia. To promulgate his desperate attempts at marrying these two cultures together, it is imperative that this aspect of his life be told from Bagoas' perspective.
Conclusion: This is the third time I'm mentally sobbing in public over the death of my favourite hero, while commuting to work. I was trying to pass off my sniffles for sinusitis. I know it was coming. But Renault's lyrical writing just destroyed me.
A couple of themes emerged. We were fascinated by the first-person narration from the point of view of a young eunuch. While most stories center around Alexander's much better known life-long lover Hephaistion, Mary selected Bagoas to tell this story. This is a fascinating choice since it allows her to be especially creative (and even a bit outlandish) in presenting the attractive Alex and Bagoas' intimate relationship, even if all that perfection and vaguely described sex does get to be a bit grating by the end.
We discussed the role of captives several times. Bagoas is essentially a slave to the Macedonian king. To survive, he adopts the strategy of most successful captives of subjugated peoples: He forgets the past and his former high position and concentrates on day-to-day concerns and marches forward, doing what he can to thrive under the current circumstances. By doing this, he leads a prosperous life with a very powerful man.
The modern concept of "love" turns the story into a romance and even melodrama at times. But this "love" that Bagoas describes would have been a completely alien concept to the actual historical characters. "Romantic love" between men didn't exist (this concept is a much later creation of the middle ages as part of the "courtly love" tradition), and even Alexander marries to consolidate his holdings and bear an heir, rather than because he loves Roxane. Later, when Alexander selects brides (and even paying for dowries) for all his officers, everyone considers this a brilliant idea - love wasn't involved. Bagoas' love for Alex makes for a romantic novel, but probably not very accurate.
Finally, Mary has given us a clever story in the form of a historical novel. It's full of research and actual events, packed with details of ancient life and travels. I liked it for the first 100+ pages, then got bogged down with the forgettable names, the long campaigns, the unclear places, the not-very-interesting court intrigues, and the ancient politics. Both Alexander and Bagoas are too perfect. By the time they get to the wars in India, I really didn't care very much and just plowed through to the end, which was very satisfying.
Looking at the reviews on Amazon, an awful lot of guys consider this their favorite novel. I'm guessing that most of these readers have very fond memories of reading "The Persian Boy" when they didn't have many choices for positive gay characters, or even much gay literature from which to select. It was an early novel (1972) to have an openly gay character who isn't punished for his sexuality and actually prospers with his lover. There's no great coming-out trauma for Alexander, Hephaistion, or Bagoas, and it's presented as a great love story, so in some ways it seems very modern and even post-gay. But then that old fashioned, plodding, and high-British tone sets in and we're stuck with a long and tedious novel with a few characters we don't care much about.
"The Persian Boy" was probably a better novel 40 years ago. I'm not sure if anybody will be interested in reading it in another 50 years. But it has an important place in the history of gay literature and Mary Renault is an excellent writer of this genre. Your enjoyment of it will depend on your love of long historical novels, regardless of how imaginative or well written they are.
Top reviews from other countries
The Persian Boy is the middle book in her trilogy about Alexander the Great and explores his relationship with Bagoas, a beautiful eunuch. Bagoas is insecure, effeminate and jealous. Alexander is a hard drinking megalomaniac bent on conquest. With enormous skill and sensitivity, Mary Renault brings together these unlikely bedfellows and engineers a lasting love affair.
I’ve read this book twice, and rate it as one of the finest works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. Renault’s prose is impeccable and her scholarship outstanding. She understands people and she understands history. And her passion for Alexander the Great shines in every word. The book does have some flaws. We get rather too much exposure to Bagoas’ introspective internal landscape as he rambles on about himself and his precious feelings. At times he repeats himself and would benefit from an editor. Some of the dialogue is more suited to a middle class English drawing room than to the Ancient Middle East – she talks about having someone ‘served up with green leaves’: one character habitually addresses younger men as 'dear boy'.. There are a couple of minor anachronisms – she refers to the unbuttoning of a robe at a time when buttons were almost certainly decorative and not used as fastenings. But the compelling story line is strong enough to carry us through the weaker passages.
In my view Mary Renault ranks alongside Robert Graves and Hilary Mantel as a great writer of historical fiction and I cannot recommend this book highly enough for anyone who likes reading about the Ancient Middle East.
The character of Bagoas is one of the deftest I have ever encountered between the pages of a novel. Sharp-minded, blessed with good looks and a burning desire for survival, the Persian boy always finds a way to rise above the dreadful situations he finds himself in. His love affair with Alexander is one the most beautiful descriptions of a relationship I've ever read - and that's quite unexpected, given that it's between two men.
Masterful, masterful stuff. Everything in this book is perfect - one cannot fail but to be carried to 4th century Asia, and thrown headlong into the midst of Alexander's army. This is a novel to read and re-read, just to enjoy the sublime prose.
Ben Kane, author of the Eagles at War novels.
Renault's decision to use the Persian Eunuch Bagoas, lover, friend, and later almost constant companion of Alexander, as her narrator is a smart decision which allows her to present Alexander's actions and character at close quarters whilst still maintaining a certain distance. This allows her to present the giant of history - the brilliant commander and diplomat god-like in the eyes of many of his contemporaries - at the same time as presenting the troubled, affectionate, often frustrated and emotional young man who could be generous, terrible, and loving dependent on his moods and aims. Bagoas is undoubtedly a narrator deeply in love with his protagonist, but he is also shrewd, objective, and valuable in that he comes to know Alexander the Macedonians from what starts as an outsider's point of view. That helps enormously for us poor readers, finding ourselves suddenly needing to understand both the Persian and Macedonian cultures to follow the story!
It's impossible to give a 'true' portrait of Alexander from the limited sources which remain, so all I can say is that Mary Renault's imagining of him is entirely believable and enlightening. She isn't afraid to leave some of his motivations a mystery, as they perhaps were to himself. His death at the end of this novel is very affecting and the fallout is deftly handled. We are left with a portrait of the man and his times which gives us a better understanding of his accomplishments and character than any amount of academic history could achieve. That is a fantastic accomplishment for a historical novelist, especially dealing with a subject surrounded by speculation and myth.
The best of the three 'Alexander' novels. Definitely worth reading if you had some reservations about 'Fire From Heaven'.
It does feel like an up market boudoir book. We regularly informed that all 3 main (male) characters are beautiful. I was expecting more.