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Sunday, February 5, 2012

"God of War" by Christian Cameron (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"The story of how Alexander the Great conquered the world - first crushing Greek resistance to Macedonian rule, then destroying the Persian Empire in three monumental battles, before marching into the unknown and final victory in India - is a truly epic tale that has mesmerised countless generations of listeners. He crammed more adventure into his thirty-three years than any other human being before or since, and now for the first time a novelist will tell the tale in a single suitably epic volume. The combination of Alexander's life story and Christian Cameron's unrivalled skills as an historian and storyteller will ensure that this will not only be the definitive version for many years to come, but also one of the most exciting historical epics ever written."

I am a big fan of Christian Cameron's "Classical Greek World" novels - there are two duologies so far in the Tyrant series of which I reviewed King of the Bosporus (the fourth novel and second dealing with the children of Kineas who is the main hero of the first two books) and two novels in the Long War series that takes place some 150-200 years earlier and feature Arimnestos of Plataea, hero of Marathon and ancestor of Kineas and his twins, Satyrus and Melitta.

So while expecting the fifth Tyrant novel (which should have been published in Jan/Feb) and the third Arimnestos one (due in the summer), I was a bit disappointed that Mr. Cameron published God of War which supposedly tells (again and after a ton of similar novels and a few popular movies) the story of Alexander.

However I read a review and realized that actually God of War is told by Ptolemy, king of Egypt and important secondary character of the Tyrant series to Satyrus about the time when the twins found refuge in Alexandria and I realized that actually this book ties in perfectly with the Tyrant series, so of course it became an asap and I got and read it immediately despite its almost 800 pages.

Kineas is quite important in the book though indeed the novel focuses on Ptolemy's life from childhood till the death of Alexander in Babylon in 323. As "legal" son of the richest Macedonian noble and rumoured that he was actually Philip's illegitimate son, so Alexander's step brother, Ptolemy is raised with the prince and becomes one of his principal advisers and later a main general of his armies, though he never attains the influence of Alexander's intimate friend Hephaestion.

Nicknamed "farm boy" for his forthrightness and occasional lack of sophistication, Ptolemy both loves and later almost worships Alexander, while also tries to keep him grounded. If Hephaestion told Alexander what he liked to hear, Ptolemy told him what he needed to hear. The unquestionable loyalty he showed during their early years and later during the difficult years of Alexander's marginalization by his father, made Ptolemy the only possible person who could tell hard truths to the increasingly "god like" king.

That made Ptolemy less than popular on occasion with the king, but his immense wealth and later his relationship with Thais, famous Athenian hetaira and unofficial spy-mistress of the Macedonians, his friendship with Kineas, the Athenian nobleman and cavalry commander and his camaraderie with his soldiers and officers compensated for that, though of course after the Persian conquest it became more and more dangerous to offer even the slightest hint of dissent to Alexander as numerous Macedonian noblemen and generals paid with their lives for that.

"‘What’s he thinking of?’ I asked Thaïs, who rode between me and Kineas.
Thaïs smiled. ‘He isn’t going to lay siege to it,’ she said. ‘He’s going to make love to it.’
She was at her most witty when she was enigmatic. So I smiled at her and kept my scouts moving."

So the novel spans about 20 years, starting with their early teen years at Pella and their study under Aristotle, though the bulk of it deals with Alexander's ascension and then his Persian conquest, while his last seven years after the burning of Persepolis in 330 are mostly summarized in the last hundred fifty or so of pages which are vignette like.

As this is a Christian Cameron novel, the world building is exceptional and the description of army life, marches and supplies is as exciting and thorough as the description of battles and sieges. While Alexander, "the God of War" is always the main focus of the big picture, Ptolemy and Thais are the main characters and their relationship from their first meeting in Athens to their quasi-marriage and lifelong partnership is the keystone of the novel and what raises this book above the many offerings on its subject.

As I tend to believe that the author's take on Alexander is as close to reality as it can be done, 2300+ years later and few original sources beyond the brute facts - details of which are still unknown and/or controversial - the novel worked very well from this point of view.

"I didn’t think he was insane – if he had ever been sane by the standards of normal men, he still was. But the enormous wound he’d taken and the drugs Philip must have put into him to keep him on his feet – by Apollo’s bow, I still look for any excuse to cover him. He ordered almost fifty thousand men and women killed between Tyre and Gaza, and for nothing. Everyone else had already submitted. There was no example to be made. And the killing of Batis went clean against his code – except that more and more frequently, he seemed to be set on the annihilation of all resistance, rather than the honourable combat and complex warrior friendships of the Iliad.It was a paradox – the kind on which Aristotle thrived – that Alexander seemed to want to create the world of the Iliad – a world of near-eternal war and heroism – and yet seemed to want to destroy all of his opponents so that they could not continue the struggle."

God of War is a top 25 novel of mine in 2012 and as a standalone page turner with so much great stuff and a modern retelling of an epic story that has stood as a model for such for all these 23 centuries, I think that anyone who loves epics should give it a try.


Usemeplz said...

Thanks for great review! After reading it now I have another opinion about this work. This story about Alexander deserves high rate.

Phokion1 said...

Thanks for an excellent review. I deeply appreciate it. Always happy to talk history at (at the Agora)...

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; looking forward to the next Tyrant and Long War novels!


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