by Valerio Massimo Manfredi (tr. Iain Halliday)


Child of a Dream

Rating: ★★★

Historical fiction, of the sort where most of the heavy lifting in terms of making the book worth reading is being done by history rather than the author. The writing is very simple, bordering at times on crude, and the characters are very lacking in depth. There is no deep insight into the machinations of the Macedonian court, no real effort at finding a unique perspective for Alexander or his entourage to articulate, nothing like that. This is not a clever book. Figures like Aristotle often say in unnatural dialogue something that reads suspiciously like a summary of what their views on a topic might have been, potentially interesting episodes are skipped in prose exposition, and the prophetic dream that the book is named after... never becomes relevant to anything?

All that said, it's still relatively entertaining. It's got some well-described battles, a bunch of sex, and fundamentally the story of Alexander's childhood (and life until he set foot in Asia) is pretty interesting and dramatic stuff, and almost any comprehensible account of it would be fairly worthwhile. The simple style means that hundreds of pages breeze by, making it good light reading.

This isn't the historical fiction trilogy about Alexander that I would have chosen to read -- I've had my eye on Mary Renault's widely-acclaimed work -- but it was a gift from someone who noticed I'd been reading a lot about ancient Greece recently (and a bookshop find, at £1 for the whole set) and I'm inclined to finish it -- in part because the plot seemed to improve after the second half of this volume, Manfredi seeming to have stumbled on some early childhood episodes he wanted to mention but not put effort into, and in part because it makes a good accompaniment to nonfiction of the period.

The Sands of Ammon

Rating: ★★

This volume in the trilogy doesn't actually suffer from middle-book slump -- it's still about as action-packed and full of sex and intrigue as the first book, even perhaps a little more. It does suffer subjectively because I read this book alongside the Life of Alexander from Plutarch, which meant that I got all the best bits beforehand. The coverage in this volume is Alexander's campaign from his first steps into Asia up until his conquest of Egypt, several episodes of which Plutarch treated in detail, and it's sort of interesting to see the few areas where Manfredi went off-script. His accounts of the battles seemed to be a little weaker than the biographer's, and his invented or speculated episodes didn't make much difference (which I guess is good).

The strangest element of Manfredi's invention was his factual omniscient-narrator presentation of the idea that Olympias is able to telepathically warn Alexander of real and present danger to his person on the battlefield. It's an odd choice because Manfredi has otherwise kept the supernatural in the realm of the subjective -- a strange dreams, prophecies that are correct to varying degrees of interpretation, priests making announcements suited to their situation, bizarre good luck. If you're going to break this plausible-deniability supernatural wall, to do so simply for Alexander's mother shouting "duck!" from thousands of miles away seems... unnecessary?

Manfredi hasn't improved his writing to any real degree between the novels, but neither is anything really worse. He managed to convey the appropriate shift in narrative tone from Alexander as the golden child who cannot be stopped to Alexander the troubled conqueror surrounded almost entirely by sycophants. The siege of Tyre was probably the high point of both action and narrative tension. I round this one down mostly to balance out my charity for the first of the series, but also a little bit because Manfredi has an Egyptian interpreter say that hippos are not at all dangerous, and it's not at all clear that this is meant to be a plot to get the Macedonians mauled to death.

The Ends of the Earth

Rating: ★★

Reached the end. I think the best you can say about this series is that if you want to read a fairly accurate and not-too-difficult account of Alexander's life, it performs that function. It avoids difficult language, does not stray very far from the source material, and tries to keep things lively. As well as the battles and drama that are inherent to the story, Manfredi inserts a fair amount of sex, I think rightly for detailing the lives and motivations of characters -- though the teenage reader should be warned that it rarely goes beyond 'and then they had sex', and anyone looking for romance should be warned that Alexander has multiple wives, all of whom he professes to love but quickly abandons, and also a gigantic caravan of concubines (and of course a number of young boys).

The final volume moves into the darkest period of Alexander's story, and Manfredi seems to lack the stomach for some of it. Anything underhanded performed by the king is attributed to Eumenes, and Alexander's brutal purges of Parmenion and Callisthenes -- who dared challenge the egomaniac -- are passed off as regrettable necessities. The narrative perspective is sometimes hard to understand -- we get some events with Alexander's mental state described, and others where we see him only from the outside, following his own inscrutable whims. In general, though, there is a lack of internal life, no depth even really to the central character. We don't see Alexander as moved through various moods, struggling with deification or orientalisation or the solitude of command. Those things certainly matter to the story, but Alexander's own attitude never comes through -- there is no sense of him wrestling with questions, just a mysterious veneer punctured at times by a temper tantrum. This mysterious-actor vision of Alexander would even work, I think, if the cast around him were richer, deeper humans with their own problems and character development, but sadly they are even more faintly sketched, 2D characters following in his orbit only to play out scenes.

I think the main problem (other than the trilogy not being terribly well-written) is that Manfredi was writing in Alexander's favour, and the events in the period covered in this book are actually fairly difficult to square with the desire to present Alexander in an unwaveringly good light. You have to write this like history writes it -- gloriously audacious, but doomed, punctuated by human frailty. I would also say that the side-plot of Detective Aristotle is drawn out to a great degree for what felt like very little payoff, and never connected back to the main narrative, making it a very dubious addition.

Though I found it altogether disappointing, there is some value to this series. I think it perhaps might be best for teenage boys, who are (to generalise horribly) most open in their love of sex and violence and least concerned with character development. It's a viable alternative to the lower-grade kinds of sci-fi and fantasy they might otherwise get this fix from, and perhaps might stimulate some interest in history (which of course contains all the best sex and violence).