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.

Reading History: “Lady of the Eternal City”

Lady of the Eternal City

I have been following the writing career of Kate Quinn since her debut novel Mistress of Rome caught my eye at a local Wegman’s.  I’m always hungry for a new historical novel about ancient Rome, particularly one in the vein of I, Claudius and other delicious costume dramas that explore the sexual and viscerally violent politics of ancient Roman life.  Luckily for me, Kate Quinn never disappoints, and her newest novel, Lady of the Eternal City, is a riveting drama that highlights the latter years of the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, through the eyes of the tale’s four heroes:  Vix, Hadrian’s reluctant bodyguard; Sabina, Hadrian’s headstrong wife; Sabina’s illegitimate daughter Faustina; and Hadrian’s besotted lover, the young Antinous.

Picking up where Quinn’s previous Roman-centered novel, Empress of the Seven Hills, left off, the novel follows the ways in which the lives of these four extraordinary individuals continue to intertwine with one another and the larger fate of the Roman Empire.  In one way or another, each of the four main characters finds his or her fate tied to that of the unpredictable and often volatile emperor.  The characters, in typical Quinn fashion, are likable yet irascible, individuals not afraid to take what they want and do what they want, the consequences be damned.  Most exemplary, however, is the emotionally resonant way in which Quinn manages to bring to life one of the ancient world’s most touching and tragic love stories.

It is not every author who manages to capture the vibrant, visceral intensity of same-sex attraction, and it is especially rare among historical novelists writing about the ancient world.  Mary Renault and Madeline Miller are two that come to mind, and both of them wrote about ancient Greece, wherein male same-sex attraction operated according to different logics than its Roman counterpart.  Indeed, it would have been easy for Quinn to paint the love between Hadrian and Antinous as one-dimensional, or just another aspect of Hadrian’s deranged character, a way of him manipulating the younger man into a sexually diseased relationship.  Instead, what emerges from her words is a haunting and evocative portrait of two souls who find absolute completion in one another.  Antinous, the epitome of youthful purity and a paradoxical worldly innocence, tames the baser and more dangerous aspects of Hadrian’s character, and they both benefit from it.

However, Quinn doesn’t shy away from pointing out the ways in which the relationship between these two men raised not only eyebrows, but the ire of many of Rome’s elite, who saw the greatest amount of shame and decline of Roman virtue in this relationship.  Indeed, it is precisely this relationship, and Antinous’s acquiescence to it, that leads to his death (I won’t reveal anything, so those who haven’t read it won’t have one of the novel’s central mysteries solved too early).  Quinn manages to solve one of the ancient world’s most puzzling and saddening mysteries in a way that allows the reader to feel both vindicated and yet also saddened at the course of events that led up to the ending of a truly beautiful relationship.

If the love of Antinous and Hadrian is, as we know, doomed to tragedy, the fate of Vix and his wife Mirah is equally fated for tragedy in the form of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and its aftermath.  Quinn does a masterful job of showing us the very real and very human consequences of one of antiquity’s bloodiest and most brutal conflicts, one that would shape the fate of the Jewish people for centuries to come.  Here, we come to understand that this conflict had very real, human costs, and that entire families were torn apart by the suppression of the revolt.  The fact that we never definitively know what happened to Mirah makes this particular section of the novel all that much more gut-wrenching.

Of course, no review of this book would be complete without mentioning the central triad of Sabina, Vix, and Faustina.  These three characters are in some ways the moral and narrative center of the entire story, and though it remains mostly focused on their personal lives, it also shows the ways in which the personal can become quite political when one is the wife of an emperor, the bodyguard of an emperor, and the beloved of a future emperor.  When you have three intensely powerful characters, it’s easy to see how their lives, hatreds, and loves can come to shape the fate of an empire and the world in which they live.

All in all, Lady of the Eternal City is the strongest offering yet from one of today’s finest and most consistently talented historical novelists.  This is a story that is full of violence and tragedy, the joy and the anguish of love, and the cruel and merciless machinations of time and politics.  While Quinn has not yet announced her next novel, one can but hope that it will continue to follow the eventful life and actions of the fiery Faustina, an empress who was not immune to the taint of scandal (she was rumoured to have consorted with gladiators, an all-too-common slur hurled at many an empress by those seeking to discredit her).

Quinn once again proves herself an adept at showing us what life might have been like for those living in the ancient world, a world where life and order were far more uncertain than we assume is the norm today.  Just as importantly, however, Quinn also continues to showcase the types of strong women whose presence in the historical record, particularly for ancient Rome, is spotty at best and nonexistent at worst.  Let us hope that she continues to bring these extraordinary women to such vibrant and compelling life.