After the assassination of his father, Alexander, a young Macedonian, inherits his kingdom and embarks on a mission to conquer the known world. Handsome and brilliant, cities fall at Alexander’s feet as his army marches east towards India, however even the mighty Alexander cannot achieve greatness alone.
By Alexander’s side is his faithful general, Hephaestion, his childhood companion and lover, and the one man who can keep Alexander’s moods on an even keel. In Persia, Roxana, the beautiful daughter of a nobleman, yearns for a life of luxury far from her abusive father, however it seems unlikely until she comes to the attention of Alexander, but she will pay a hefty price if she is to stay by the side of the most powerful man in the world. The Persian princess, Drypetis, determined not to become another notch in Alexander’s belt, schemes to keep her father on the throne but even the most loyal of daughters cannot help questioning why her father keeps abandoning his people. Meanwhile, Alexander’s sister, Thessalonike, left behind in Macedon, longs to learn how to fight so she can join her brother’s campaign. All have their part to play as Alexander’s star streaks brightly across the sky, but even the brightest of stars is fated to burn out and the consequences will be devastating.
The full title of this book is The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great, however it is not necessarily about the wives of Alexander as only one of the three, Roxana, is given a viewpoint. The book is also narrated by Hephaestion, Alexander’s male lover; Drypetis, the captured Persian princess who eventually marries Hephaestion; and Thessalonike, Alexander’s half-sister, who remains in Macedon for much of the novel. Each of these characters knows a different side to Alexander and their differing insights into his character are essential for fleshing out the man from the myth.
Since each woman eventually becomes the wife of a conqueror, this story is really about their journey and the part they played in history. Thornton does a great job of breathing life into these women, especially since there is so little information to go on, and their daily existence is rendered in exquisite detail which appeals to me far more than the endless gory battle scenes. The three women are all so different in temperament and as events unfold, I found my opinion of them changed significantly. My favourite character was Drypetis, the sharp-tongued Persian princess, who managed to capture the heart of the noble Hephaestion who disregarded her lack of beauty in favour of her wit and intelligence.
I was initially sympathetic to Roxana, Alexander’s first wife, as she seemed to have had the hardest life from her abusive upbringing to her eventual fall into prostitution. By the time Roxana meets Alexander, she has been betrayed so many times, it has made her bitter towards men and she will do everything in her power to stay at Alexander’s side even if it means committing murder to rid herself of her rivals. Roxana becomes increasingly unlikeable and my sympathies for her quickly evaporated as her actions became all the more deplorable.
The least interesting of the women for me was Thessalonike who spends most of the story training to fight like her Illyrian sister, Cynnane, and longing to be by Alexander’s side. By the time, Thessalonike sees her brother again, he is already dying and she eventually spends more time fighting against those who want to steal his vast empire. The chapters after Alexander’s death move at such a fast pace, Thessalonike’s turn to shine seems far more rushed, however her presence is probably needed to explain the fate of Alexander’s heirs more than anything else.
There are a lot of deaths in this book, particularly after Alexander’s demise, and the body count increases at such an alarmingly rate, it would almost seem absurd if you didn’t know the tragic events were true. The problem isn’t helped by Thornton’s pacing though, as the deaths all seem to occur within such a short space of time in the closing chapters and she doesn’t make it very clear a significant amount time has passed between some deaths. Guess I should’ve paid more attention to those chapter headings. The passage of time was a real problem for me as some of the bigger events happen “off-stage” as a result of a particular narrator not being “on-stage” at any given time and it made me feel a little cheated.
I like the fact Thornton chooses to examine the lives of obscure female characters from history, so I will definitely be checking out her other novels. However, the best part of her writing by far is the marvellous attention to detail she brings to her descriptive passages because she makes the lives of these women seem so real without overdoing the details. I loved the Persian setting and had no trouble imagining the wide landscapes, the mountain ranges and the magnificently opulent palaces. It’s so hard to believe this is the same place as modern Iran.