Reading History: “The Conqueror’s Wife” (Stephanie Thornton)

As readers of this blog know, I have a voracious appetite for historical fiction set in the ancient world. Fortunately for me, Stephanie Thornton has again released a fantastic tale, this time focused on the men and women surrounding that most powerful of ancient generals, Alexander the Great.  With The Conqueror’s Wife, Thornton takes her place alongside Mary Renault as one of the handful of writers who has a strong grasp of the effect Alexander had on those who surrounded him.

The novel follows the fortunes of four primary characters:  Drypetis, younger daughter of Darius III; Thessalonike, the half-sister of Alexander; Hephaestion, Alexander’s lover and best friend; and Roxana, Alexander’s conniving yet beautiful first wife and mother of his child Alexander IV. They each find themselves caught up in the powerful, overwhelming personality that was Alexander the Great.

Through some strange skill known only to her, Thornton manages to make Roxana, certainly one of the novel’s most vicious and bitter characters, into an understandable figure. We see through her eyes as she suffers first the brutal punishments of her cruel and uncaring father and then the depravity of the usurper Bessus, before finally becoming the original Queen of Queens to Alexander. Her position remains unstable, though, and becomes all the more so after the conqueror marries the royal Stateira and then dies of a fever. Desperate to retain her status, Roxana resorts to ever more desperate measures, and while we are led to feel revulsion at her increasing bitterness and cruelty, we also understand their source. She recognizes the cruel necessity that her body is her key to power, even as she grows to hate (at least at a subconscious level) what she has gradually become.

Roxana’s fellow Persian, Drypetis, could not be more different. She yearns to understand what makes things work, and her restless desire for more knowledge keeps her going even through the hardest moments of her life. She gradually endues the loss of almost everyone that she cares for, from her father Darius to her husband and true love Hephaestion.

Thessalonike is in many ways the twin of Drypetis. Both are royal young women who are exceptional in that they do not fit comfortably into the roles expected of them.  Thessalonike yearns to be a fighter and a warrior like her elder brother,while Drypetis has a mind for mechanical things.  Neither is willing to let the limitations imposed on their gender keep them from doing what they want, and both are fiercely loyal to their families. Unfortunately, they both also find themselves subject to powers greater than they are, and both experience unimaginable loss.

Fortunately, they also find strength in one another. As two of the fortunate survivors of both Alexander’s reign and the bloodbath that followed his death, they are able to find solace and power in the companionship that they have so long been denied. It is a fitting reminder of the intensity of the relationships that often emerge between and among women.

Finally, we come to Hephaestion. He has always been an ambiguous character in much historical fiction, given the fact that many authors prefer to refer to him as Alexander’s “best friend” or some equally innocuous term. Thornton cuts through all of that and makes it clear that the bond between Alexander and Hephaestion was deeply passionate and intensely sexual. While the novel does not go into too much detail about the mechanics, it also does not leave any doubt that, even after many years, the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion was almost certainly still sexual and that they really did love one another with a power beyond that of mere friendship.

Thornton paints a compelling and visceral portrait of a dark and brutal world. She doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to portraying both the grit and gore of the battlefield, as well as the equally bloody and dangerous worlds of the bedroom and the political arena. All of the characters find themselves forced do things that they would rather avoid, and they have to live with the scars that these actions inflict on their psyches.

There are two casualties of the novel, Alexander and his mother Olympias. Unfortunately for Olympias, her actions–most of which had at least some measure of justification given the dark and tumultuous times in which she lived–do not lend themselves to sympathetic portrayal. For my part, I did feel a pang of sympathy for her when Cassander at last outmaneuvers her and has her stoned to death. This, after all, was a woman who managed to survive everything thrown her way, only to at last meet the most ignominious of deaths. But, I have to admit, she makes a compelling villain.

As for Alexander, the novel paints him as something of an egomaniac (as he probably was), and in that sense is a useful corrective to some of the more hagiographical approaches of other authors. Much as I love Renault, she tends to gloss over some of Alexander’s more glaring faults. Thornton shows Alexander as an undeniable genius, one of those rare leaders who combined phenomenal charisma and military acumen with more than a touch of madness.

Thornton does an excellent job, as always, of painting exquisite portraits of the conflicted and compelling personalities that had an enormous impact upon the world in which they lived. I cannot wait until she reveals the subject of her next novel.

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