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Jo Graham – Stealing Fire

July 16, 2010

LibraryThing Early Reviewers78. 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.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

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.
8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2010 9:42 am

    I’ve seen Jo Graham’s books- Black Ships has a gorgeous cover, especially- but I hadn’t realized they were so good. I think I’ll definitely check her out.

    As for Kay being classed as a fantasy author- well, I mean, he is. Even his more historical fantasy takes place in fantastical analogues to certain countries and time periods, I believe, which puts it firmly into fantasy territory for me. (I know you don’t like the term “low fantasy”, but it can useful in situations like this.)

    But I would place Graham’s work under supernatural, if fantastical elements occur in the real world. I’m getting a bit paranoid about genre, if you can’t tell… :)

    • July 16, 2010 8:18 pm

      Omni – Oh, I know Kay’s a fantasy author. I’m arguing more from a marketing perspective rather than a classification perspective. I just think there are so many historical fiction fans out there who would love GGK, but who would never think to look twice at a fantasy book, and are therefore missing out. I mean, do you think Time Traveler’s Wife would be the huge sensation it is if libraries and bookstores shelved it with the science fiction? (Which is, technically speaking, where it belongs.)

  2. July 16, 2010 8:13 pm

    Sounds like historical fiction to me. Actually it sounds like Mary Renault, who I’m feeling uncontainable affection for right now, and wishing she’d written dozens more books. I am seriously really excited about reading this author now!

    I don’t know if you’re interested in Alexander the Great, but if you are, Mary Renault wrote two very good (fiction) books about him: Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. Her prose can be a little dense, which is why I don’t recommend her to people that often, but I love her. Her books are all set in ancient Greece, and she just brings the historical setting to life so vividly.

    • July 16, 2010 8:21 pm

      Jenny – Graham actually cites Renault as a large influence in her author’s note, although Graham is primarily focused on the period after Alexander’s death, rather than his life.

      Having not read Renault, I can’t say how they compare, but if you’re already set in Renault’s version of Alexander, it would be interesting to see what you think of Graham’s interpretation.

  3. July 17, 2010 2:58 am

    Oh oh, I’m so glad you loved this one! I have Graham’s two previous books on my TBR shelf and can’t wait to get to them. It’s true that we don’t see Alexander much in historical fiction, it will be interesting to discover him a little.

    • July 20, 2010 10:10 am

      kay – Graham’s book has definitely left me wanting to read more about Alexander, that’s for sure! I hope you enjoy her books whenever you get the chance to read them.

  4. July 29, 2010 10:18 pm

    I loved this book too. Again, I haven’t read too much fiction about Alexander the Great prior to this, but it was a really good one.

  5. Carol permalink
    July 26, 2013 2:30 pm

    I am a huge fan of both Jo Graham and Mary Renault (and of Fyrefly). Renault’s books can be dense–“Fire from Heaven,” which covers the childhood and adolescence of Alexander, is heavy going and not for everyone. But “The Persian Boy,” about his world conquests, is generally considered her best book and is not to be missed if you enjoy sweeping drama, great characters, and a sense of history coming alive in a really well written story. Also might want to give “The King Must Die,” Renault’s first “bestseller” and a magnificent take on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

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