Jo Graham – Stealing Fire
78. Stealing Fire by Jo Graham (2010)
Length: 323 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction with notes of Fantasy
Started: 04 July 2010
Finished: 08 July 2010
Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.
Why do I have it? I loved Jo Graham’s Black Ships and really enjoyed her Hand of Isis, so I was eager to read her newest book as well.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 19 June 2010.
When the man who holds
the world dies, lesser men must
pick up the pieces.
Summary: Alexander the Great is dead, and his empire – the largest the world has ever known – is already being splintered amongst rival factions. The King’s only legitimate heir is not yet born, and so Alexander’s generals and advisers are all seeking power for themselves. Lydias of Miletus, a former stable boy who became one of Alexander’s Companions, joins with Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals who has claimed Egypt for himself. But Egypt is restless – Alexander was Pharaoh, and without the proper funerary rights, the god Horus remains encased in the body, and the dark spirits of Egypt are no longer bound from working their evil. Lydias thinks of himself as a common soldier, but he must realize his uncommon destiny if he is to protect the fate of Egypt, and that of Alexandria: the newly-built city that was to be Alexander’s greatest legacy.
Review: I don’t know how Jo Graham does it, but something about her stories, her characters, and her writing all coalesce to form these wonderful novels that resonate with me in a way that not many books do. Her first book, Black Ships, was a revelation, and easily one of the top five books I read in 2008, and while Stealing Fire didn’t quite move me in the same way, it was still remarkably good. I think part of that has to do with the story and the setting: in two of her three novels, Graham has chosen to tell the story of the aftermath, to set her novels after the big history-making event, and to watch the way her characters try to make sense of a world that is falling apart around them. She does this very well, and the slight panicky tension of having everything you knew to be true suddenly erased is humming in the background throughout the story.
Another element that underlies every aspect of her story is the idea of reincarnation. The main characters of Black Ships, Hand of Isis, and Stealing Fire are all the same soul, born over and over again, always in a time of great upheaval, always speaking with the gods and dreaming of their past and future selves, and always tied to the souls of those they love, and those they serve. This concept is not crucial to understanding the story – each of the books can be read independently without sacrificing any understanding – but Graham’s clear vision of the interweaving of these characters throughout history gives her books a richness and a resonating power that I haven’t often found elsewhere.
The story of Stealing Fire was absorbing as well. I haven’t read many (any) books featuring Alexander, and although he was only in this book in flashback, I was fascinated by the descriptions of his empire, his plans for the Successors (an army composed of the sons of his soldiers, from every part of his empire), and in seeing the beginnings of Alexandria, and how it could develop from there into the urban center of Cleopatra’s time. Graham also did an equally good job with describing Egypt (a setting I’ve always been fond of), and a surprisingly good job of writing battle scenes and military tactics in a way that I could visualize and keep track of. My one complaint is that it occasionally got a little bit military/politics-heavy, and that because it’s all from Lydias’s point of view, the other factions squabbling over Alexander’s empire aren’t particularly well-characterized. But overall, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now have to go back to waiting impatiently for Graham’s next book. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: I’ve objected in the past to Guy Gavriel Kay being classed as fantasy, and lamented the fact that this designation might keep his books from the hands of appreciative readers. Everything I’ve said about his novels goes double for Jo Graham, in that her historical fantasy involves people that actually lived in countries that actually existed. It is fantasy inasmuch as the gods actually speak to people – but not all people, only their oracles, and really, what else are oracles for? It’s religious mysticism, sure, but not any more than I’d expect from any novel of Ancient Greece/Egypt, and it’s unclear what qualifies Graham’s books as fantasy rather than straight-up historical fiction.
All of that is a long-winded way of saying that if you don’t particularly like fantasy, please, please, please don’t blow off Graham’s books based on the genre label; historical fiction fans will find plenty of wonderful things here for them as well.
Links: Jo Graham’s website
Other Reviews: Fantasy Book Critic
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.
First Line: The King was dead. Alexander lay in Babylon, in the palace of the Persian kings, upon the bed where he had died, and I killed a man across his body for no reason that made any sense.
“You abhor the Lie and revere Truth,” I said. “Does not that sacred fire demand service, no matter what its form, should it be garbed as an Apis bull, or as the sole god of Judah or a Magi’s flame? Are we not servants of the light together, working toward the good?” -p. 158
Vocab: (see the whole list)
- p. 23: “Under the dark cloth I saw her eyes, Thais the Athenian, the hetaira who had traveled with Ptolemy for ten years now, since they had crossed into Asia.” – a highly cultured courtesan or concubine, esp. in ancient Greece.
- p. 50: “The building was long and low, looking more like a stoa or a marketplace than a palace.” – An ancient Greek covered walk or colonnade, usually having columns on one side and a wall on the other.
- p. 106: “It was growing dark as we walked along it, the waves piling against the mole a man’s height beneath our feet.” – a massive structure, esp. of stone, set up in the water, as for a breakwater or a pier.
- p. 113: “The had their sarissas, but no steel hats or breastplates.” – a 4 to 7 meter-long pike used in ancient Greek warfare.