Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Love Story at the Heart of DANCING WITH THE LION

The nature of Alexander’s relationship with Hephaistion completely fascinates me.

Not whether they were lovers (for the novel, I've assumed that), but the honesty, duration, and sheer depth of it.

Alexander called Hephaistion “Alexander too,” and “Philalexandros”—friend of Alexander, in contrast to one of his other generals, Krateros, who he called only “Philobasileus”—friend of the king.

Although it seems they did often agree on policy, his support wasn’t brown-nosing. We’re explicitly informed that Hephaistion would tell Alexander what he really thought. Nobody else was as free as he was to upbraid the king. Yet Alexander never seemed to have felt threatened by him. 

They were true best friends.

How many rulers throughout history have had that? Someone who they utterly trusted? And for about nineteen years, too. Maybe even longer (we’re not sure when they met).

Who was this guy? What must he have been like, to become best friend to Alexander the Great? I’ve spent much of my career studying him, and I’m working on a biography about him now. But fiction lets me speculate in ways history doesn’t.

It seems to me that a lot of novelists who write about Alexander aren’t entirely sure what to do with Hephaistion. He winds up bland, or bitchy. It may also be why at least some historians have a hard time believing he deserved his commands. He had to have been a yes-man or Alexander wouldn’t have kept him so close. Or he’s painted as Richelieu-esque, called “sinister,” and described as “tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid.”

I’ve challenged these portrayals in my scholarship, but believe a goodly chunk of the problem is trying to imagine the sort of man who’d become “Alexander too,” without menacing the authority of such a dominant figure as Alexander. I think Hephaistion was a gamma male. Pop definitions can be found all over the net, but the term was born in anthropology to describe the (few) male bonobo chimps who simply didn’t play the game. While some pop definitions assume gamma males will always clash with alphas because of a gamma’s dislike of authority, that’s only partly true. For especially powerful and intelligent alpha males, gammas may be their only true friends.

I believe Alexander trusted Hephaistion because he was neither a follower nor a leader, and he could keep up with him intellectually, shared his visions and ideals. They had a mission together. All the best love affairs do. Far from bland or bitchy, Hephaistion must have been complex and formidable. And theirs is one of history’s most interesting love stories, even if we may not know a whole lot about how it came to be.

But that’s what fiction is for.

Monday, July 22, 2019

When Your Chief Protagonist is *Really Famous*

I love coming-of-age stories, especially about people you know will go on to do amazing things.

Yet authors of historical fiction usually avoid making a famous person the chief protagonist. It’s likely to tick off readers if your vision doesn’t match theirs, especially if you go into the character’s head.

In my case, however, it’s precisely Alexander’s fame that led me to focus on him. He was enormously complex, the source of continued fascination throughout history, but everybody has a different Alexander. To some, he’s a hero, to others, he’s a monster. He’s also not really what one would expect in the man who’d go on to conquer most of his known world before he was 33: the fresh-faced kid with a “melting gaze” (so the ancient authors), who liked to present himself as a “philosopher in armor.” He’s a feisty bundle of contradictions.

But whatever people think about him, he seems larger than life.

Which is exactly why I wanted to write about him. I want to humanize him.

Alexander is the poster child for what happens when a famous father produces an even more famous son. We don’t hear about Philip of Macedon much today because Alexander sucked up all the air in the room. But when he was a boy, nobody knew what he’d become. He grew up in the fishbowl of palace life, son of “the greatest of the kings of Europe” (so Diodorus, an ancient author). What must that have been like? Supposedly, he used to complain to his friends that his father wasn’t leaving anything for him to accomplish. Even in his teen years, he had a hunger for glory. Today, we prefer our heroes humble, but the Greeks didn’t.

It’s easy to assume he was a golden boy from the very beginning, he did everything early and easily—got it all right on the first try. Or one might prefer the contrary camp that claims he was lucky and Not All That.

Neither of those play for me. The truth is, I think, in the middle. He made mistakes, did stupid stuff—not just politically, but militarily, despite his reputation as a military genius. The measure of success isn’t making no mistakes, but learning to recover from them quickly, which he did. And it’s that guy I want to explore in my fiction, not the larger-than-life hero.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Boy and His Horse

Some important characters in Dancing with the Lion have four legs. And Alexander didn’t enter the pages of history alone.

He rode there.

History has given us some pretty famous horses: Traveler. Secretariat. Trigger. Marengo.

But Bucephalas was first. (Or Boukephalas, in the novel, the Greek spelling.)

At the ripe old age of twelve, Alexander tamed a big, dark horse* that nobody else could handle. It’s a great story, if also likely exaggerated. Yet that’s where their legendary friendship began. Supposedly, the horse would let nobody else ride him. And when a hill tribe kidnapped Boukephals at one point during the campaign, Alexander threatened to lay waste to the entire countryside and butcher very person in the region unless they brought his horse back.

They brought his horse back.

When Boukephalas died in India, Alexander even founded a city and named it after him. Now, as much as Alexander loved Hephaistion, he didn’t get any cities named after him.

Macedonians adored their horses, and Boukephalas was a very special companion to Alexander. For those of us who’ve loved a special pet, we can empathize.

And it’s not just Alexander’s Boukephalas who plays a role in the book. If we don’t know the name of Hephaistion’s horse in history, in Dancing with the Lion, he’s Brephas, who was raised from birth by Hephaistion, and is just as precious to him as Boukephalas is to Alexander. Perhaps even more so, as Alexander has just acquired Boukephalas a few months before the novel opens, whereas Hephaistion has had Brephas for years. 

So it was fun to give some personality not just to the two-leggeds, but the four-leggeds. Horses play a significant role, as Hephaistion comes from a family that breeds and trains them.

I’d like to give a shout-out to well-known SFF novelist Judith (Judy) Tarr and Carolyn Willekes (The Horse in the Ancient World), who did their best at different points to keep my horse facts on track.

(*Boukephalas is often called “black,” but the word in Greek just means “dark,” and the Pompeii mosaic shows him as a brown bay, a very, very common coat shade. So that’s what he is in the novel. Hephaistion gets the cool horse colors. Brephas is a sandy-bay.)