Rating 4.5 out of 5 stars
Focusing on homosexual relationships in historical fiction in the ancient Greek world is not new – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault have done so and reached wide audiences – but I am still thrilled to see another entry into this particular area, especially when that relationship is deep, abiding, and meaningful. There have been centuries of writing and thinking that served to ignore and whitewash what was an important, and beautiful, part of the history of that era. While there are certainly many parts of the culture that I am glad are no longer accepted – the treatment of women, slavery, constant wars, to name a few – the general acceptance of sexual love between two men (or women) deserves to be remembered and celebrated.
I also have a weak spot for epic stories, and the life of Alexander the Great is certainly a compelling subject. Dr. Reames added to this book what is a new twist for me – using Hellenic (Greek) nomenclature for names, places, and concepts. Thus we have Alexandros, Aristoteles, Philippos, etc, instead of the usual westernization of the names, which lends it an additional air of authenticity and interest. There is a wonderful section where Hephaistion tries to puzzle out whether eros – sexual passion – can exist with true philia – brotherly love – in his relationship with Alexandros, and the use of the Hellenic terms made me really look at the debate in a deeper way.
The book begins when Alexandros was 13, and newly entering the ranks of the Pages, or the servants of the king, Philoppos of Makedon (Philip of Macedonia). Even at this young age, Alexandros had to find a balance between being set apart as a prince, and Philoppos’ heir, and yet still one of the youth of Makedonian aristocracy training to become a soldier and officer. Hephaistion was 17, the youngest and only surviving son of Amyntor, who ran away from his home to Pella against his father’s wishes, and Philippos was more than willing to add him to the ranks of Pages. Partly because both young men were outsiders in a way, and partly because of their natural intelligence and curiosity, Alexandros and Hephaistion struck up an unlikely friendship, that deepened over the next few years in the time they spent as part of a select group of young men tutored by Aristoteles.
The coming of age of a prince must necessarily be different from that of other boys, no matter how much Alexandros might want to be like them. The court of Philippos was full of political machinations, and Philippos himself was a master manipulator. Alexandros’ mother had her own ambitions for him, and she also used Alexandros as a pawn in the power games she played with her husband. Surrounded by people who wanted to use him, Alexandros found his friendship with Hephaistion one of the few things he could fully trust and depend upon. Although their culture was accepting of same sex relationships, these relationships were typically defined with a very particular power dynamic – the older “erastes” was the lover and dominant partner, the younger “eromenos” was the beloved, and submissive. Alexandros and Hephaistion loved one another, but how could they have that type of relationship when Alexandros was the future king? (NOTE – by keeping the ages of Alexandros and Hephaistion relatively close together, the author was able to introduce this idea without giving it the creepy connotations of the modern day practice of pederasty, which is pretty much flat out pedophilia from what I’ve read about it. I have to give the author props for that – even if I don’t know if their relationship was consistent with how the custom was truly practiced)
This book sets up what I expect will continue to be an amazing story. I know how it ends of course – sometimes isn’t that the worst part of a fictionalized biography? – but I can’t wait to see the rest of the journey between here and there. There is a large cast of characters, which can be confusing at times, but they are all nuanced, multifaceted people. Warrior king Philippos; philosopher Aristoteles; priestess/witch/mother Myrtale; as well as the young men tutored by Aristoteles along with Alexandros, all interact in complex ways that seem to drive towards some inevitable destination. This is definitely a character-driven plot, which is my favorite! The book ends as Alexandros participates in a venerable ritual that fully initiates him into manhood, a logical completion of Becoming, which makes me truly anticipate the next chapter of Alexandros’ life in Book II: Rise.
I can’t wait to read the next book!
Cover art by LC Chase captures the ancient setting well, but does not reflect the grand, heroic nature of the characters.
ebook, 282 pages
Published July 1st 2019 by Riptide Publishing
Original Title Dancing with the Lion: Becoming
Edition Language English
Series Dancing with the Lion #1
setting ancient Greece