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Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Stealing Fire" by Jo Graham (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)


Official Jo Graham Website
Order "Stealing Fire" HERE
Read FBC Review of "Black Ships"
Read FBC Capsule Review of "Hand of Isis"

INTRODUCTION: "Alexander the Great's soldier, Lydias of Miletus, has survived the final campaigns of the king's life. He now has to deal with the chaos surrounding his death. Lydias throws his lot in with Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals who has grabbed Egypt as his personal territory. Aided by the eunuch Bagoas, the Persian archer Artashir, and the Athenian courtesan Thais, Ptolemy and Lydias must take on all the contenders in a desperate adventure whose prize is the fate of a white city by the sea, and Alexander's legacy."

Two years ago I was very impressed by Ms. Graham's debut Black Ships (FBC Rv by Robert who did not like it as much as I did) - a recreation of Aeneas' tale though not quite as the Aeneid tells it. I enjoyed her second effort Hand of Isis (FBC Capsule Rv) a bit less, mostly because I read way too many books - fiction and non-fiction- about Cleopatra. "Hand of Isis" is a very good retelling situated within the "numinous" reinterpretation of history that Ms. Graham is continuing in "Stealing Fire", but it did not bring anything new for me; however I would strongly recommend it as a first novel about Cleopatra.

Since
"Stealing Fire" deals mostly with the immediate post-Alexander world about which I have read some but not as much as about Cleopatra, I was able to enjoy it a lot more as being "fresh" for me as well as being a great adventure read.

Ideologically "Stealing Fire" sits in the "Alexander great hero and Hephaistion his almost as heroic bosom companion" camp and makes a great contrast with another historical fiction series I have been enjoying recently, Tyrant by Christian Cameron whose Alexander and Hephaistion form a "power mad leader/cowardly arrogant second" pair to remember too. Though Ptolemy who is a main character of Stealing Fire and Tyrant 3: Funeral Games gets a positive press in both series...

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Stealing Fire" stands at about 300 pages and is narrated by former stable boy Lydias of Miletus, half Carian, half Greek by blood, who later becomes a cavalry officer in Alexander's army. The novel starts with a map of the Alexandrian Empire and ends with a glossary of things, persons, places, a further reading list, an interview with the author and an excerpt from "Black Ships".

From the starting point of "Stealing Fire" at the death of Alexander in Babylon 323 BC, the novel has a main thread going forward in time and following Lydias and his new "chief" Ptolemy as they try to establish themselves in Egypt and build Alexandria into the great city intended by its founder, interspersed with snippets from Lydias' earlier life and adventures from his unpromising beginning as a slave boy that gets sold by his father to a horse dealer to his current relative eminence as cavalry commander.

Other main characters are Bagoas the famously beautiful eunuch companion of Darius and then Alexander, Artashir a Persian noble and officer in Alexander's army, Thais the (in)famous Athenian hetaira of the Susa Palace torching fame and long time companion of Ptolemy and of course Alexander and Hephaistion as above.

"Stealing Fire" is "as good as it gets" historical fantasy which reasonably respects the events of its time as far as we know them, but also contains elements of the fantastic in Gods and Goddesses, avatars of the dead and other supernatural beings as well as in reincarnated persons. A standalone but clearly connected with both its chronological precursor Black Ships and its successor Hand of Isis.

ANALYSIS: Stealing Fire showed somewhat unexpectedly in the mail and when I opened it, I just got hooked from the first page and I stayed way too late that night to finish it, though I reread it the following day to both savor it at leisure and get its finer points I may have missed on my first "need to find out what happens even if my eyes are closing" read.

The main strength of the novel is the first person narration of Lydias. He is a character you cannot help but root for and both his actions in the present of the novel and his reminiscences of the past show a "honorable" person who essentially worships his benefactor and later commander Hephaistion and by extension Alexander too, while being respectful as half-Greek/half-"barbarian" of Alexander's new companions of the East like Bagoas or his comrades in arms like the Persian Artashir.

Lydias' short-lived marriage with the young Indian widow Sati that ended in tragedy on the terrible desert retreat from India in 326 BC and which keeps haunting him illustrates Alexander's vision - whether pragmatic or idealistic or both - of an "universal" world not divided into West or East, European or Oriental, Greek or Barbarian and adds to Lydias' depth as a human who finds himself also attracting the attentions of the Gods.

The supporting characters from Ptolemy to Thais, Bagoas and Artashir are also very well done and quite believable and the novel shines everywhere in the characterization aspect. But there is action galore, from a desperate ride to secure a fortress ahead of the news, to ambushes, cavalry battles and even crocodile encounters so "Stealing Fire" fits comfortably in the adventure mode of storytelling.

The "numinous" aspect that involves reincarnation and mystic dreams, encounters with Gods, prophecies and foretelling puts Stealing Fire firmly in the fantasy camp but the relative faithfulness to historical record as the big picture goes, grounds also the novel in "reality". The fusion of "fantastic" and "real" in almost perfect balance is another superb achievement of the author.

Stealing Fire (A+) is the best of Ms. Graham's work to date and a novel I strongly recommend to both lovers of historical fiction and fantasy adventures as the "perfect crossover".

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear that. I picked up Black Ships upon the strength of your review and I loved it. In fact, it was probably one of my favorite novels in 2008. I agree that Hand of Isis was weaker, but still very good.
How does Tyrant: Funeral Games stand up? I loved Tyrant, but I felt the author painted himself into a corner with Tyrant:Storm of Arrows with a prophesy that had to be fulfilled. You knew how the story ended.

Jennifer

Liviu said...

I liked Storm of Arrows though I agree that the long-foreseen ending took a bit away from it, but on the other hand it was an appropriate ending to a large extent

Funeral Games is in a sense the start of a new 3 volume series; the twins are now the heroes but there are lots of new interesting characters; I liked it a lot - and while it has its dark parts, it is a more exuberant novel in many ways as befits the younger heroes; it is also interesting to see the very down-to-earth portraits of the "big names" here too - Demetrius (son of Antigonus) is now the golden arrogant boy instead of Hephaistion...

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, which book is your favorite Cleopatra novel? I'm fairly new to the historical fiction genre and am currently reading Margaret George's version of her.
-Daniel

Liviu said...

That one (Margaret George) is excellent as a pro-Cleopatra novel and incidentally Hand of Isis is very similar in spirit with it.

Cleopatra in the Masters of Rome/McCullough series is also superbly portrayed though more ambiguously

When we were gods/Falconer is another I liked

Cleopatra's Heir by G. Bradshaw while alt-hist and more about an what-if Caesarion survived is a very sweet novel

Then there are a bunch of novels where Cleopatra is more of a secondary or background character, each with its own version of her (some of my favorites are The Romas Sub Rosa books by S. Saylor with their iconoclastic description of all and sundry from the Masters of Rome epoch, Cleopatra appears in the later novels directly)

Elena said...

Loved your review of a book I've loved reading. Like you, I couldn't put it down until it was finished with.

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