Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book Review: The Conqueror's Wife by Stephanie Thornton

Title: The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great
Author: Stephanie Thornton

First line: Alexander deemed himself a god, the mythic descendant of Achilles and the son of Zeus, and entire nations fell to their knees in ecstatic worship of him.

Review: I loved this book. LOVED. Another top ten read for 2015.

To be fair, I anticipated I'd love it, having adored Thornton's previous novels (Daughter of the Gods and The Secret History). But this one, featuring those closest to Alexander the Great, really blew me away.

Unlike her previous novels about Theodora and Hatshepsut, it is the figures in Alexander's life who tell his story (and despite the title, more than wives, too): Hephaestion, Alexander's best friend and lover; Thessalonike, his adoring younger sister; Drypetis, the fierce daughter of Persia's King Darius; and Roxana, the scrappy Persian who becomes Alexander's first wife. Through these four points-of-view, we see a kind of Alexander as they know him: inspiring and loving, angry and vengeful, passionate and curious.

Each of the four narrators is wildly different in voice and tone (although almost all have a flirty/combative relationship with Hephaestion, interestingly enough!). And each figure has a different kind of relationship with Alexander, which makes for an intriguing and more well-rounded portrait. Thessalonike adores her brother while Drypetis wishes Alexander dead. Roxana is determined to keep Alexander captivated while Hephaestion has a long, deep, and complicated one with this mercurial man. While I never fell in love with Alexander, I was taken with each of these four narrators, mesmerized by their lives and their fierce determination to live.

As with Thornton's other novels, the historical details are wonderfully rendered, rich when needed and otherwise unobtrusive. The meat of this book is the relationships these narrators have with Alexander and each other, but the landscapes around them are neatly evoked and echo, in some ways, the tumultuous emotion racing between our four narrators.

Speaking of emotions, I can't finish this review without remarking on Thornton's handling of Alexander's and Hephaestion's bisexuality.
After a battle, you bed a woman to forget what has happened. You bed a man because he knows exactly what you're trying to forget. (p131)
She does so beautifully; it is normalized and remarked upon in equal part, treated in a manner that feels historically accurate without injuring bi/queer readers. There's nothing explicit, either hetero or homosexual, however, for those who aren't in the mood for a bodice ripper (and in fact, the sex here is a far cry from romance, really; a sobering reminder of how bodies are used and traded).

Thornton became an author I automatically buy after her first book; this one just confirmed her as one of my favorite historical novelists. No matter the era or figure, she manages to pluck figures from past and breath into them personality, life, and emotion. This is escapism at its best: treat yourself, and the other hist fic fans if your life, with this one!

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient / 4th Century / Greece / Middle East / Alexander the Great / Romantic Relationships / Historical Figures Fictionalized / LGBTQ)
Publisher/Publication Date: NAL (12/1/2015)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Conqueror's Wife to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends Jan 1. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.

1 comment :

  1. This was my first Thornton book but definitely not the last! Really loved this.