I take it as a sign of an excellent book when, even if you know what happens, you can’t help reading anyway. So it has been with Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, a historical fiction novel about Bagoas, a Persian eunuch of celebrated who is given to Alexander as a gift becomes his lover. There it is–the entire plot. But as with all good books, it’s the telling that really counts, and this one just won’t let me go. It’s packed with pretty much every kind of tension you can imagine: political, physical, emotional, and yes,the steamy hot sexual kind, which she treats boldly and honestly but with unerring grace and subtlety.
I can’t help but compare this to Pressfield’s Alexandriad, The Virtues of War–both have been written in the first person. Not only is it delicious to see Alexander through Persian eyes, but the contrast between the two renditions could not be starker. Renault’s Alexander, 25 when the story begins, is shy about love, brash, inexperienced, at times uncouth, always striving for the ideal. So complex he is, and so flawed, I could easily imagine him as a friend of mine. Pressfield’s character is more of an archetype, a powerful, matured, single-minded warrior, no less fascinating, but less personable, somewhat intimidating to read. He is concerned with logistics, politics, crossing this and that plain; Renault’s is infinitely more nuanced, concerned not just with fulfilling his ambition, but also with his desire for love, his weakness for liquor, his desire to be noble and heroic in the Hellenic sense.
Oh, and I have to add, I absolutely love how Renault flows in and out of time, as one should, when telling a tale in the first person. Pressfield does it to, but in a more regimented, structured way. Renault slips in and out as easily as taking a sip of tea.