Fire from Heaven, the greatest coming-of-age story ever to double as a work of historical fiction
–Tom Holland, Introduction to Fire from heaven
Title: Fire from Heaven
Series: Alexander the Great #1
Author: Mary Renault
Introduction: Tom Holland (
Length: 427 pages
Rating: 5/5 ★★★★★
Alexander’s beauty, strength and defiance were apparent from birth, but his boyhood honed those gifts into the makings of a king. His mother, Olympias, and his father, King Philip of Macedon, fought each other for their son’s loyalty, teaching Alexander politics and vengeance from the cradle. His love for the youth Hephaistion taught him trust, while Aristotle’s tutoring provoked his mind and Homer’s Iliad fuelled his aspirations. Killing his first man in battle at the age of twelve, he became regent at sixteen and commander of Macedon’s cavalry at eighteen, so that by the time his father was murdered, Alexander’s skills had grown to match his fiery ambition.
This will probably be long, I have a lot of things I need to talk about:.
In this book we get to see Alexander grown from a scared kid into the young man who would take over the world. The author was a historian and at the end we get a full chapter of sources she used for each milestone she depicted on the novel.
I knew the bare minimum about Alexander the Great and a dear friend of mine recommended this to me, I blew up her phone almost every day with reading updates.
This book is heavy on the historical front, I was expecting something more along the lines of The Song of Achilles but this wasn’t it. First of all because it’s historical fiction, not YA, and second because it was published in the 1920s.
This part deserves its own banner because I loved it and you should know it.
Tom Holland gives us a perfect preface for this beautiful work. He helps us situate ourselves both in the time this was written and the time it’s based in. We get a quick pan of the author’s life and how much work went into the making of her novels. There’s also a lot about the importance of the publishing landscape of its time. I would recommend everyone to get a copy that includes the introduction and to read it slowly if you want to get the most out of the book.
There’s a lot to say about him but lets be real: he’s the main character and I’ll be singing his praises this whole post so let me begin with:
Alexander’s boyfriend, he is the closest person to Alexander, the one he trusts the most. He does everything he can so they can be together. HE IS LOYAL AND SELFLESS AND I LOVE HIM
‘You’re with me,’ Hephaistion said. ‘I love you. You mean more to me than anything. I’d die for you any time. I love you.’
Alexander’s mother, descendant of Achilles and probably a witch. My reaction to her varied along the novel, at first I was loving her and her reactions “Hell yes, curse that asshole!” But as the story progresses and Alexander grows we see her as a woman who is trapped with nothing to do but see conspiracies everywhere (she was right sometimes though) and rage against her
shithead husband. At one point she thinks her own son turned against her and she becomes abusive. By the end of the novel I felt nothing but pity for her.
Alexander’s father, descendant of Heracles, he wasn’t bad but he wasn’t a good person either. He was a king of his time and as such he thought everything was his to do as he pleased. I really hated how he shamed Alexander in front of others and repeatedly took wives to prove he had control over people. He was a good enough king, conquering a lot of the known land and making peace treaties but as a person I found him despicable
Alexander’s half-brother (unacknowledged), he was a good companion and supportive of Alexander at all costs. He was never jealous or power-hungry and I feel like he was an important pillar on Alexanders childhood.
Goooooooods I wanted him to die slowly and painfully, I got something even better: every soldier saw him run away from the attack and look like the coward he actually was.
Alexander’s little sister. I liked how their relationship grew through the years. Alexander was never rough and treated her well, he consoled her when needed and the moment she was “threatened” with her wedding he was there to help her come to terms with it and reassure her that it wouldn’t be hopeless.
Hello there! I had no idea Aristotle had educated Alexander but it makes sense, one of the most important philosophers of all time teaching on of the best conquerors of all time. I liked how we saw his teachings and beliefs and how they influenced the way characters acted.
I’ve highlighted how both Alexander’s parents were descendants of heroes from the Golden Age because this is an important part of the archetype of Classic Hero. He is destined for greatness because his ancestors were great. This goes also with the allusions to a possible godly father that his mother makes.
Alexander is asexual(!!)
Listen, I know we aren’t supposed to impose modern views on historical figures but Renault clearly writes him as ace and this keeps strong all along the story. He loves a man and is forced to bed a woman but in neither case does he show the smallest interest in sex. It’s said of him that:
He’s as chaste as Artemis; or nearly.
Alexander’s asexuality doesn’t stop him from loving Hephaistion and they still have a deep and meaningful relationship:
One might have supposed that the true act of love was to lie together and talk.
On the after-word the author talks about how the norm for the time was bisexuality, and that even if he was married to women he still could love men but she still remarks that:
His general restraint was much noticed; but, for contemporaries, his most striking peculiarity was his refusal to exploit defenceless victims like captive women and slave-boys, a practice then universal.
He didn’t care for sex and Mary Renault took care to make that clear both in-story and when citing her sources
It is a recorded saying of Alexander’s that sex and sleep put him in mind of his mortality.
Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship
There’s everything to love about this, starting with their very first interaction:
Alexander swore at him in barrack Macedonian. The other boy opened his mouth and eyes, and listened riveted. Alexander, who could keep it up for some time, became aware of respect and did so.
Once he gets to know Alexander better Hephaistion feels that his life’s meaning to love and protect him at all costs. I admire how devoted and selfless this love is, since he wants to be more physical with Alexander but upon realising it’s not what he wants he decides to just be by his side
Hephaistion would have followed him to exile, prison or death; this knowledge gave self-respect to his pride.
He becomes a skilled soldier to be able to protect him and follow him in battle, since Alexander goes headfirst into danger and poor Hephaistion’s heart has to deal with it.
However this wasn’t a one-sided relationship. Alexander trusts Hephaistion above everyone else and he talks to him all the time, discussing his plans and trusting his counsel.
[Alexander to Hephaistion] ‘One should learn to do without anything one can. But I should find it very hard to do without you.’
He tells him even things he shouldn’t tell and when his father wants to control him, he threatens Hephaistion, and it works.
Hephaistion, well, as soon part a man from his shadow.
Side note, their closest friends used to make bets on whether or not they were together during their time in Aristotle’s school…
Lastly, they become so domestic over time and it’s everything I ever wanted:
He reached for the brush of chewed stick with which he cleaned the goldwork. ‘Give me that, I’ll do it along with mine.’ Hephaistion bent over the elaborate finial of the sheath, and the latticed strap-work. Alexander always rid himself of his javelins quickly, the sword was already his weapon, face to face, hand to hand. Hephaistion muttered a luck-charm over it as he worked.
The comparisons between Alexander and Achilles
This is a persistent theme all along the narrative, both in the case of great glory and early death and in his relationship with Hephaistion
He told me once that Achilles chose between glory and length of days.
His own teacher believes him tobe Achilles’ reincarnation. I really like how the similarities are pointed out and how much Alexander leaned into it.
‘You went in without me. You didn’t even look.’ Suddenly transformed, Alexander gave him a loving smile. ‘What’s the matter with you? Patroklos reproached Achilles for not fighting.’
Still he felt himself better, since he points out Achilles’ hubris and how he failed his lover, Patroclus. (which I totally agree with, but that was kind of the point in The Iliad)
He was a general! And he sent a junior officer, when he wouldn’t go! It was his fault Patroklos died.
The foreshadowing between both of their deaths was so obvious and yet so painful
Suddenly he grasped Hephaistion in an embrace so fierce that it knocked the breath out of him, and said, ‘Without you I should go mad.’
Since he was young he took care to know each of his father’s soldiers, to make friends among the ranks. When he grows and goes to his first battle he remembers them and after he goes to the medical tent to spend time with them, to thank them for their effort. He is shown to be a natural Leader from the start.
when they broke the wrong way, he changed his movement like that.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘We shall see things, Parmenion, with this boy of mine.
There aren’t many things I disliked about this (obviously) but I feel the need to point out something that was mentioned in the introduction, and explained. If I hadn’t had the warning I’d have felt very uncomfortable when reading:
The treatment of women by the characters was terrible. They are shown as powerless or crazy and there’s only pity for them as Alexander realises that’s their reality, just because of how they were born.
‘The gods are unjust to women.’ ‘Yes, I have often thought so. But the gods are just; so it must be the fault of men.’
If one kept one’s mind upon what one wanted, the chance appeared.
Never discourage your enemies from wasting time…
‘Days should be longer. Why must one sleep? One should be able to do without.’
In which I’m Alexander…
Man’s immortality is not to live forever; for that wish is born of fear. Each moment free from fear makes a man immortal.
The school discussed friendship often. It is, they learned, one of the things man can least afford to lack; necessary to the good life, and beautiful in itself. Between friends is no need of justice, for neither wrong nor inequality can exist.
In grief more than in joy, man longs to know that the universe turns around him.