Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review - Stealing Fire by Jo Graham

Short review: Alexander is dead, and in the following chaos Lydias chooses to throw in his lot with Ptolemy and Egypt.

Alexander killed
War to claim his dead body
Ptolemy's Egypt

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Stealing Fire is billed as a historical fantasy - that is, a book that is set in something akin to our own history but upon which magical elements have been overlaid. The novel is set in the chaotic time immediately after Alexander the Great's untimely death and is told from the viewpoint of Lydias, a Companion cavalryman of mixed heritage who must navigate through the political infighting that takes place when Alexander's ambitious generals try to stake their claim to his throne. The novel is loosely connected to Graham's other two historical fantasy novels Black Ships and Hand of Isis, although loosely enough that despite the fact that I have read neither, I did not feel like I was missing anything from this story.

The novel opens immediately after Alexander has died, and the fighting breaks out seemingly before his body has even grown cold. Lydias, as a commander of an Ile of Companion cavalry, is important enough to be in danger, but not important enough to do anything on his own. Based upon almost nothing but some sense that he is the only figure of political importance worth following, Lydias throws his lot in with Ptolemy the Satrap of Egypt. He is entrusted with the sensitive task of spiriting Ptolemy's concubine and children away from the dangers of Babylon to Egypt. Once in Egypt, Lydias learns that all is not well following the Great King's death, and there is much to be done to set things right.

The main story of the book is told in mostly linear fashion, but it is intercut with flashbacks that give the reader background information about Lydias, how he became a soldier and eventually a Companion, and the interrelationships between the various characters in the story. Although this sort of background detail interwoven into an ongoing story could serve to bog things down, Graham is able to inset them into gaps in the action in such a way that they feel natural and, in most cases, provide critical details without interrupting the main narrative. This sort of background detail is needed as it helps to define the various relationships between the characters, and explain why the various actors have chosen particular sides. Given the somewhat intricate nature of the politics of the day, adding this sort of information in small chunks interwoven throughout the book rather than overwhelming the reader with long expository material at the beginning is an effective and probably necessary method.

Much of the story revolves around the intrigues surrounding the disposal of Alexander's body, which takes several years to accomplish. The fantasy element of the story enters in through this portion of the story, as the supernatural denizens of Egypt have become unsettled as a result of the death of the Pharaoh, in the form of Alexander, with no replacement to keep the unsavory spirits in check. Through various signs and visions, the Gods of Egypt offer Ptolemy the throne of Egypt, but only under certain conditions. This fantasy overlay upon the events of history is done with a fairly light touch, as almost all of them could be easily explained as hallucinations or coincidences. They are, however, regarded as real by the characters in the novel, so whether they are in truth real or not is a somewhat unimportant question. The reality the characters face is that they accept the truth of the mythology of Egypt, and hence they are real for the reader as well. This effectively adds an interesting element to a piece of historical fiction without changing the world so much that history would be affected.

The meat of the story is the path taken by Lydias. During the main plot line of the book, he has already progressed from being a half-Greek sold into slavery by his indifferent father to stableboy to soldier. In the book he, by necessity, has to learn how to lead men in battle and rule men in peace. Lydias must also learn to let go of the tragedies of his past and embrace the future, both his own personal future (which sees him coming full circle, effectively accepting the same burden that he accepted at the beginning of the story) and the one envisaged for Egypt by Ptolemy. Ptolemy, as portrayed in the book, represents the element of Alexander's philosophy of rule that modern readers in the Western world would most identify with: tolerant, even encouraging of a polyglot society with fundamentally fair laws that apply equally to all. And it is to this ideal that many of the men who rally to his cause are drawn, including the half-Greek half-Anatolian Lydias. Lest one imagine that Ptolemy is wholly altruistic, this society is necessary to protect his own half-Macedonian half-Greek children and the children of his soldiers, most of whom married or merely fathered children with women from across Asia during Alexander's years of conquest.

The only caution I would have concerning the book is that it does deal with the sexual activities of the various actors in a fairly straightforward manner. Given that male bisexuality is taken as an accepted norm of the period, many of the male characters are involved in sexual relationships with one another. The book also deals frankly with societal norms such as the common presence of eunuchs, and the often unequal sexual relationships between men and women. Ptolemy, for example, has a long term relationship with an Athenian hetaira, with whom he had fathered three children, but both he and she accept a politically advantageous marriage to a Macedonian princess. A reader who is likely to be offended by male homosexuality or the open acknowledgement of the sexual politics of the era should probably avoid the book. Graham's treatment of these issues, however, is presented as a well-integrated part of the story, and serves to enhance the reader's understanding of the characters. Unlike many books that seem to include sex as something that seems almost tacked on as an obligatory part of a story checklist, this element in the story is a necessary and integral part of the novel.

The novel starts at a fast pace, and is punctuated with action throughout. But the best part of the story is not the battle scenes, as well written and realistic as they are. The best part is watching Ptolemy, Lydias, and the rest of the characters attempt the seemingly impossible tasks of navigating the political quagmire of Alexander's disintegrating empire while at the same time transforming themselves from soldiers into architects, diplomats, and rulers. Set in the backdrop of these events is a mythology that successfully walks the fine line between history and fantasy. In short, this is a book well worth reading for anyone who is interested in historical fiction or fantasy.

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