The Persian Boy

Note: Whenever I review a Mary Renault book, I try to include a little disclaimer. Renault always attempted to write books that would be true to the historical culture she was illuminating. She didn’t try to sanitize or modernize her characters. This means that pagans in her books act like pagans, think like pagans, and do lots of pagan things. Which also means that her books are not for everyone. CAVEAT LECTOR.

Mary Renault writes the best historical fiction I’ve ever read. The way she brings historical characters to life in a believable, realistic way, avoiding any anachronism in their personalities and actions, is simply amazing. I have never seen another author consistently combine good writing and good scholarship as well as Renault. In this way The Persian Boy does not differ from other books I’ve read by her.

The one thing of note about this book that can be discussed, however, is her choice of narrator. The story in The Persian Boy begins several years after Fire from Heaven, her previous book about Alexander the Great, and is narrated by Bagoas, King Darius’s eunuch who becomes Alexander’s lover. This choice of narrator was a bold move on Renault’s part and has some definite advantages and disadvantages.

I’ll talk about the advantages first. Renault focuses the main conflict in the book on the ways in which Alexander attempted to integrate his Macedonian and Greek soldiers that he brought with him on his campaign with his newly acquired Persian soldiers. What better way to symbolize that conflict than to tell the story from the perspective of one who grew up in the Persian court and is shocked and confused by the customs of these Macedonians? In addition, Bagoas becomes a rival to Hephaistion for Alexander’s affection, thus creating a “love triangle” of sorts. The rivalry between the two is there, even though Alexander is too na├»ve to sense it, and this well symbolizes the tension between his Macedonian and Persian contingents that he optimistically believes he will unify in one new culture containing the best of both worlds.

This being said, there were a number of disadvantages. Bagoas as narrator didn’t really work for me, and I think it was a misstep on Renault’s part. While we do get a harrowing and exciting opening to the book that shows Bagoas being made a eunuch after his family is murdered and a great introduction to Persian politics of the day, we don’t hear from Alexander for quite some time. The opening chapters of the book drag on without him. Some of Alexander’s most iconic victories and battles are relayed briefly by messengers because Bagoas is at Susa and not present at the battles. Likewise, most all of the major battles in the book as well as many of the political conferences have to be relayed second-hand as Bagoas the eunuch is not invited to such places and occasions. As a result, we the readers spend way too much time in the bedroom with Bagoas and way too little time in the field with Alexander.

This lopsided view also extends to the character of Alexander himself. Alexander’s sexuality was something of an enigma at the time. No, I’m not talking about the fact that Alexander had male lovers; that was pretty much commonplace in Greek culture, and no one would have thought twice about it. I’m talking about the fact that though Alexander did have his lovers, he appeared to care very little for sex and seemed to desire it little for its own sake. His self-control in this area was a marvel to those who wrote about him, especially in comparison with his soldiers and other conquerors of the time. Mary Renault showed this aspect of Alexander’s character in Fire from Heaven and makes a few perfunctory nods in that direction here, but, once again, her choice of narrator for this book forces her into an unbalanced emphasis on Alexander’s sex life rather than his character as a whole. I felt like the complex Alexander I came to know and appreciate from the first book is a bit flat and one sided in this second novel.

And speaking of characters I came to know and appreciate from the first book, I was very disappointed that Hephaistion played such a small role in this one. He was Alexander’s dearest friend, oldest ally, and lifelong comrade. He was the Patroklos to Alexander’s Achilles. And yet, because we’re getting the story from Bagoas, we, understandably, don’t see much of Hephaistion. After all, it’s not like he and Bagoas were chums or anything.


Overall, this book didn’t grip me or interest me as much as the first, mostly due to the issues named above. If Renault had continued the third person narrative style of the first book or even told the story in the first person from Alexander’s perspective, it would have done a much better job of giving the readers insight into Alexander’s character and his legendary conquest of Persia.

3/5 stars

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