Review: Funeral Games by Mary Renault

After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C .his only direct heirs were two unborn sons and a simpleton half-brother. Every long-simmering faction exploded into the vacuum of power. Wives, distant relatives, and generals all vied for the loyalty of the increasingly undisciplined Macedonian army. Most failed and were killed in the attempt. For no one possessed the leadership to keep the great empire from crumbling. But Alexander’s legend endured to spread into worlds he had seen only in dreams.

Review by Charlie Cochrane

Alexander the Great; for the lover of history, adventure and valour, the name alone is enough to send shivers up the spine. Whatever one might think of his conquests – and how can we judge a man at a remove of over two thousand years? – what can’t be denied are his charisma and qualities of leadership. The supreme leader by example, the affection he was held in by his men is undeniable.

The love affair between Alexander and his army makes for one of the great historical love stories. Mary Renault explores Alexander’s story in the trilogy of books Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games. The last of these isn’t technically a gay romance, which might beg the question why I’m reviewing it here. It’s the sequel to The Persian Boy, which firmly falls under the Speak Its Name umbrella, and the suggestions of romance lingers.

Like the faint odour of a candle once the flame has been snuffed, the relationships of Alexander and Hephaistion, Alexander and Bagoas (the eponymous Persian boy) drift around this story too. I feel that’s enough to warrant at least a brief mention. Funeral Games is not an easy book to read, although not because of style. Renault was accomplished at capturing the atmosphere and spirit of an era and her characterisations here, particularly of women, are strong. Partly it’s the amount of incident and personalities crammed into a small book. I had to keep referring to the list of principal characters because I couldn’t remember who was who. And the events following the King’s death are harrowing, not least the treatment of Philip Arradaios, Alexander’s mentally deficient half brother, who becomes a pawn in the bloody power struggles around him.

The only character who seems to emerge with any credit is Bagoas himself, his love for and service to Alexander, even after death, his sole motivation. There are some lovely lines, such as Ptolemy’s thoughts on the grieving boy: “He had come remembering the elegant, epicene favourite; devoted certainly, he had not doubted that, but still, a frivolity, the plaything of two kings’ leisure. He had not foreseen this profound and private grief in its priestlike austerity.”

Just as in The Charioteer, Miss Renault manages to convey the deepest emotions in the simplest of words.

Buy: Amazon UK Amazon USA

2 Responses

  1. “The love affair between Alexander and his army…”

    Small wonder they called him “the Great.” That was a helluva big army.

    Seriously, I had the same problem with this book–there were so many characters and so much backstabbing that while I’ve reread the first two books more than once, I’ll probably never go back to this one. Definitely worth reading, though.

    Good review!

  2. Lee

    I agree with all you say. It’s taken me forever to read Persian Boy as I go back over every scene, but Funeral Games? Might keep it for reference, that’s all.

    Cheers

    Charlie

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