There are few figures from history who throw a shadow as long as that of Alexander the Great. Attempts to tell his story must be brave, not least because there are readers such as myself who will have loved Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy for decades. But Christian Cameron, a man and author steeped in the military history of the period and intensely involved in its re-enactment, not to mention a fine writer to boot, is up to the task like no other. God of War proclaims itself an ‘Epic Story’ and it is just that – in subject matter, in depth and insight, in scope and in volume. At almost 800 pages, each meticulously filled with historical detail, this is no swift read, at least not for me. For ten days, I was immersed in another time and place, populated by some of the most fearsome and ruthless soldiers to march across the ancient world. At their head is Alexander.
God of War does not, though, attempt to look inside the mind of Alexander the Great. Instead, our narrator is Ptolemy, king of Egypt, boyhood friend of Alexander, becoming one of his most brave and able commanders. This might make you recall the Oliver Stone movie Alexander, I certainly did, but this aside Ptolemy is perfectly positioned to tell the epic story of Alexander and chart his progression from golden prince to feared tyrant. Why did the Macedonians follow Alexander year after year, from battle to battle? There are sections during this story in which Ptolemy struggles to find an answer. This is the Alexander who clasps the hand of Darius, the King of Kings, as the great Persian dies, weeping for the death of his reason to fight. His own men, who make the greatest of sacrifices – and some suffer horrendous fates – receive little such regard from the man they’ve followed across the earth.
Ptolemy is a fine storyteller. He shocks and amuses, especially when commenting on the qualities that define the people of the places they conquer. Like many others, he suffers more than his faire share of injuries and so there are swathes of action that pass in a blur for Ptolemy. Each time he comes to, Alexander’s character has been eaten into that little bit more. While Alexander himself is seen as a driving god(demon)like force on the fringes, Ptolemy’s own life is told with great detail – his love for Thais, his children, his horses (how he loves his horses) and his friends. Of course, Alexander was once one of them.
After the initial chapters which cover the end of Philip of Macedonia’s reign, the succession of his son Alexander and Alexander’s time in Athens, the majority of the novel follows Alexander’s epic campaign. As a result, there are sieges and battles galore. There is a lot of blood, there are accounts of horrific events and deeds, women and children suffer, slaves and prisoners suffer. The campaign makes people mad, not just Alexander. And throughout it all, there is the question of why.
While it is impossible to fault God of War for its authenticity and historical detail and spirit, I did find the military scenes relentless in a book of such length. This, of course, is inevitable in a novel about one of history’s greatest military leaders but I thought the character of Alexander himself stayed too much in the shadows. I missed the intimacy with Alexander that Mary Renault gave us. I missed the details about Alexander’s life, his wives and friends. He remains elusive – intentionally, no doubt. Much of the time, especially as the novel progresses, I also found it hard to understand why anyone would follow him anywhere. More understandable is why men would follow Ptolemy and his fellow commanders.
Nevertheless, God of War is an extraordinary and staggering achievement by Christian Cameron. I doubt Cameron’s expertise in Greek military history can be equalled or even approached. He is steeped in this period and it shows on every page. God of War does make demands on the reader, or at least this one, but the reward makes them well worthwhile.