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God of War by Christian Cameron

annis
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God of War by Christian Cameron

Post by annis » Mon February 13th, 2012, 6:34 pm

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A one-off, though linked to Cameron's Tyrant series, this is the fictional "true" story of Alexander the Great as told by astute and canny Ptolemy, the great survivor (as far as I can remember, the only one of Alexander's close companions and generals who managed to die of old age). Ptolemy did in fact write a long-lost history of Alexander's campaigns said to have been notable for its objectivity and lack of hagiography, and perhaps the inspiration for this novel. Cameron captures Ptolemy's voice perfectly - tough, shrewd, genuinely congenial and likeable, but pragmatic and not above a spot of self-aggrandizement (Ptolemy was accused of talking up his own role in the History he wrote, but Alexander's Macedonian Companions didn't get where they did by being shrinking violets). So, even though Alexander is the pivotal character, the charismatic, dazzling figure around which all events revolve, the main protagonist of God of War is its narrator, Ptolemy.

Cameron excels in world-building and great characterization and yet again this shows up as his strength. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the Athenian hetaera Thaïs as a strong female character, and the development of her relationship with Ptolemy. I could even accept their marriage during the Rev.Moon Mass Marriage-style ceremony at Susa where Alexander compulsorily united his Macedonians with Persian women, even though we don't actually know if Ptolemy ever did marry Thaïs (there is also the small problem of Ptolemy's Persian bride, Artacama). It makes for a wonderfully romantic touch nonetheless.

There's a reason why authors often choose to break up the story of Alexander's campaigns into several volumes - they can be almost as gruelling for the reader as they were for Alexander's army. Cameron does well in keeping the reader involved and the pace going the full distance. God of War is necessarily a military adventure and as well as great battles Cameron gives us a fascinating glimpse into the nuts and bolts of the machinery behind Alexander's conquests - campaign tactics, troop dispositions, the running of a sophisticated intelligence network and the exigencies of supplying Alexander's increasingly vast and fragmented enterprise.

The odds are always stacked against a historical novelist tackling the subject of Alexander the Great. Firstly, how do you portray a man who was a legend in his own lifetime and has remained one ever since? Secondly, over the years Mary Renault's Fire From Heaven has become by default the received fictional version of Alexander's life and times, and any new portrayal will inevitably face critical comparison. However, Renault's work, though magnificent, is not without bias - her vision of Alexander is hyper-romantic and steeped in hero-worship. Cameron's Alexander is the antithesis; he's often shown as a monster - a megalomaniac, vain and vengeful. He is both a man but also something other; superhuman yet inhuman. As seen through Ptolemy's eyes Alexander is not so much insane (gods-touched), as godlike in the manner of the Greek gods, who walked among men, playing careless games with mortals' lives for their own amusement yet demanding the adulation due a divinity. I personally find this different viewpoint refreshing - I don't think there will ever be a "definitive" fictional Alexander, and it's always good to challenge stereotypes. By taking an oblique approach in using the persona of Ptolemy, Cameron avoids some of the issues involved in making Alexander the hero of a novel. And Ptolemy, son of Lagus and King of Aegypt, would be the first to remind us that this is, after all, his story.

The savage internecine struggle for power between Alexander's generals known as the Wars of the Diadochi or Successors provides the background for most of Cameron's Tyrant series. Anyone wanting to know how things played out for for Ptolemy after Alexander's death can't go past Mary Renault's Funeral Games for an excellent overall picture of this struggle.

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The Alexander mosaic found at Pompeii - the cover of Cameron's novel was clearly inspired by this work.
Last edited by annis on Tue February 14th, 2012, 2:56 am, edited 3 times in total.

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fljustice
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Post by fljustice » Mon February 13th, 2012, 11:02 pm

Thanks for the review, annis! Sounds like good one.
Faith L. Justice, Author Website
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annis
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Post by annis » Tue February 14th, 2012, 2:38 am

Might not be everyone's cup of tea, Faith- CC does play fast and loose with the facts here and there and some readers will hate an Alexander who doesn't fit the heroic mould. Of course, Ptolemy is telling the story, and it's understood that he might not be a totally reliable narrator - if he can make himself look good at Alexander's expense he probably will. You can't trust those Macedonians not to put each other down if it's to their advantage - the first thing they learn is Back-stabbing 101 :) However, if you want a great military adventure, Cameron's your man.
Last edited by annis on Tue February 14th, 2012, 5:52 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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Post by emr » Tue March 27th, 2012, 6:54 am

Thanks for the review annis. I couldn't have said it better ;)
Back-stabbing 101 indeed. CC says in his notes that he could write more stories focusing on any of the other characters and make them look good in the light of the rest. Even Olympias (!!!).
The novel is hard to read at times due to the violence (which CC thankfully gives as faits accomplis as in "this happenned" so you don't have to suffer all the way through). (Couldn't Olympias had used pillows? omg omg.)
Excellent book.

BTW: Can't remember what happened to Cyrus in the Tyrant books... ?
"So many books, so little time."
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Post by annis » Wed March 28th, 2012, 1:48 am

Posted by emr
BTW: Can't remember what happened to Cyrus in the Tyrant books... ?
Cue mental blank, sorry- who was Cyrus again? Maybe Darius? My brain cells are decreasing proportionately as my age increases :)

Yes, that scene had me cringing as well- although Olympias was said (possibly with Alexander's complicity) to have murdered Cleopatra Eurydice's children, I don't recall seeing a description anywhere of exactly how she did it.

There were a few scenes that had me going "eeuuw-err" as Ptolemy describes yet another atrocity, topped off with the wry remark, "Macedonians, eh?" Those Macedonians were all as mad as meat-axes! And if Alexander was paranoid it's not surprising given his dysfunctional family background - not to mention the fact that with friends like his, who needed enemies?

Did Ptolemy murder Alexander? (This isn't a spoiler as he tells us fairly early on that he did). Do we even know exactly which of Alexander's generals were present at his death? If Alexander was actually murdered and didn't just succumb to typhoid fever, Kassander has usually been seen as the likely suspect. Mind you, Paul Doherty also went for the Ptolemy-as-murderer option in his non-fiction book, Alexander the Great, the Death of a God.

Seeing all the original contemporary accounts got lost along the way and appear to have told conflicting stories in some cases, it does leave an author room for a bit of creative history-making.
Last edited by annis on Wed March 28th, 2012, 1:52 am, edited 3 times in total.

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Post by emr » Thu March 29th, 2012, 6:28 pm

[quote=""annis""]Cue mental blank, sorry- who was Cyrus again? Maybe Darius? My brain cells are decreasing proportionately as my age increases :) [/quote]

My last neurone bows to your decaying brain cells ;) Cyrus was a persian commander friend of Ptolemy in the Alexander book. For some reason I though he was one of Kineas friends but I leafed through the first 2 Tyrant and didn't see him. So yah maybe i mistaked him with Darius.
"So many books, so little time."
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annis
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Post by annis » Sat March 31st, 2012, 8:09 pm

It can get confusing when you read a lot of books - sometimes they have a bad habit of morphing into each other :)

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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Mon April 16th, 2012, 3:51 am

[quote=""annis""]
Cameron excels in world-building and great characterization and yet again this shows up as his strength. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of the Athenian hetaera Thaïs as a strong female character, and the development of her relationship with Ptolemy.
[/quote]
Good work, Annis. I agree, I think a mortal Alexander is infinitely more interesting, as well as more believable, than that demigod figure so many authors and historians seem to have liked to sell him as. In that vein, Cameron's Alexander would very much remind me of Scott Oden's version in Memnon. For goodness sake, I don't know why the man has been so revered as such. He was just a kid who woke up one day and found himself in the candy store.

As an empire administrator, he couldn't hold a candle to either Cyrus or Darius (the Great), could he? He backed away from a fight with the Nanda Empire of Chandragupta Maurya's grandfather, didn't he? Who with their 9,000 elephants might well have crushed and buried Alexander's entire knackered army in the dust of northern India. While reputable Alexander biographer Peter Green believes that he was actually beaten on the first day at Granicus River and was only saved by Parmenion on the second day. Sorry, I'm suddently in rant mode now. :D

I knew, when I read Christian's Tyrant: Storm of Arrows, that there were some things I especially liked about his style. Now that you've specifically mentioned worldbuilding and characterisation, I'm inclined to agree. He also has a great eye for fine logistical detail, you can depend on him to meticulously deliver and vividly describe, to use your words, the nuts and bolts of a military campaign. Not surprising considering his military background. I believe that he also has a soft spot for the strong woman. His Srayanka in Storm of Arrows is magnificent, I think.
Last edited by Shield-of-Dardania on Mon April 16th, 2012, 5:21 am, edited 13 times in total.

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Post by annis » Tue April 17th, 2012, 5:53 pm

The fact that Cameron is prepared to be ruthless with his characters always adds an edge to his stories as well - you get attached to someone and nek minnit they've been killed off :)

Yes, poor old Parmenion got a rough deal and didn't deserve to be treated so shabbily. I feel that he's been rather unfairly stuck with the "nervous Nellie" label - an older, more experienced general would always take a more cautious approach than a young glory hound like Alexander. Did Alexander ignore Parmenion's advice at Granicus? Given Alexander's nature it does seem likely, though sources differ about what happened. (Diodorus of Sicily, btw, is Cameron's go-to source of choice.)

In God of War Alexander recklessly goes on the attack at Granicus, stuffs up by getting his timing a bit wrong and has to be rescued by a couple of his Companions (Ptolemy, naturally, being one of them!) Interestingly, Cameron has Parmenion's son Philotas contribute to the debacle by not providing support where he was meant to, and so adding to Alexander's paranoia about the pair.

Alexander was not only paranoid but a great propagandist, and I believe Parmenion suffered because he was Philip's man, and a reminder that Alexander owed a lot of his success to his father - a fact that didn't fit the image of himself Alexander wanted to promote.
Last edited by annis on Tue April 17th, 2012, 8:35 pm, edited 14 times in total.

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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Wed April 18th, 2012, 4:52 am

Don't know if anyone's heard it, but there's this rare legend about Alexander, I came across it in an academic textbook on occupational medicine actually, years ago.

There was one time when Alexander was somewhere in India, and a tribal chief had offered a beautiful tribal girl's hand in marriage to him.

The girl was from a tribe who lived with snakes - including poisonous ones - and maybe worshipped them as deities well. Raised among snakes from small, she would have been subjected to increasingly larger doses of snake venom, gradually building up her body's natural tolerance to snake poison.

Her hair and nails would have been potent enough to kill small animals. Alexander was charmed by her natural beauty, and had given the chief's proposal serious consideration. Eventually, he was persuaded against it by no less than Aristotle himself.

The girl's bodily fluids, Aristotle counselled, would have been toxic enough to kill Alexander, the moment Alexander, umm, consummated his marriage to her.

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