Mary Renault (1905-1983) was the pseudonym of Eileen Mary Challans. She was born in England but moved to South Africa where she and her partner became part of a group of gay expatriates, although she expressed opposition to gay rights movements. She wrote six contemporary novels and eight historical adventures plus two non-fiction books. She worked as a nurse, the setting for her first novel.
Her first novel was Promise of Love (1939, also published as The Purposes of Love) and it is essentially a romance. A young nurse falls in love with one of the doctors where she works, a liaison that is strictly against the rules, so they have to conduct their love life - as much as they can manage given their schedules - secretly. The stress of both work and play in this case build up on the woman, who reflexively turns to yet another doctor for solace, complicating her emotion issues enormously. The plot is well handled if rather pedestrian and the characterizations are reasonably well drawn but what charm the novel has lies in the author's depiction of the conditions under which the doctors and nurses are forced to work. This was followed in 1940 by Kind Are Her Answers, which is also a romance, this time involving a romantic triangle. The protagonist is a doctor trapped in a loveless marriage who finds solace with an actress despite his ethical objections to cheating on his wife. The characters aren't particularly well drawn and there is nothing really new or interesting in the protagonist's plight.
The Friendly Young Ladies (1943, also published as The Middle Mist) has similar subject matter but a much lighter tone and is in fact a romantic comedy involving a romantic quadrangle. Two artistic women are involved in a long standing love affair when the sister of one of them comes for a prolonged visit. About the same time they meet the younger sister's boyfriend, another male protagonist doctor, who becomes flirtatious with all three. His presence has a startling effect on all three of the women, who soon become confused in their allegiances. Although this likely had a wider appeal than the first two books, it still falls far short of her later work. Much closer to that quality level is Return to Night (1947) which returns to more serious marital themes. This time the doctor is a woman who falls in love with one of her patients. Complicating matters, the patient is much younger than she is and is still living with his mother. Although the story itself is rather placid despite its deep emotional content, the characterizations are quite strong and it was evident that Renault was learning her craft. This was the last of her minor novels.
North Face (1948) was the first to match Renault's growing strength of characterization with a plot that involved adventure. In the aftermath of World War II, a small bed and breakfast is host to a man recovering from a bad marriage and the death of his daughter. He is uninterested in interacting with the other guests, but while hiking he spots a woman who unwisely tried climbing a rocky cliff that was too much for her talents. After rescuing her, an uneasy but growing attraction provides a romantic plot interspersed with his and eventually their adventures in the wild. That said, the plot moves very slowly and it is difficult to identify with either of the two protagonists. The Charioteer (1953) was the last of Renault's novels before she began writing the historical work that made her reputation. Set during World War II in England, it's the story of a man who has to adjust to the realization that he is gay. A wounded soldier is torn between two loves - one of whom is almost openly gay, the other similarly confused about his own orientation. It is essentially a romance novel with interludes of mild suspense because of the German bombing attacks, but written intelligently and with some frank examinations of moral and ethical issues.
The Last of the Wine (1958) was the first of Renault's historical novels, and it's miles ahead of anything she had previously written. The setting is Athens early in the Peloponnesian Wars, starting about the time that Alcibiades was exiled after he and his friends were accused of getting drunken and vandalizing a number of religious statues, with subsequent scandals and counter accusations. This was particularly unfortunate since he was the best general they had available at the time and the Spartans were clearly superior on the land - though Athens virtually ruled the sea. The Athenians had also unwisely chosen to attack Sicily even though it was Sparta whom they were fighting. The protagonist is Alexias, son of Myron, an average citizen of the city state who was almost exposed as an infant because of the perception that he was sickly. Myron goes off to help with the invasion of Sicily and Alexias finds himself drafted to fight against the Spartans, who have broken their truce and invaded. Along the way he has picked up a male lover, become an accomplished athlete, and acquired a half sister whom he saves from death by destroying a letter from his father saying to destroy the child if it is female. Renault's interest in gay relationships is evident throughout the early part of the novel as much of it deals with male prostitution and bonding, set in a society where it was perfectly ordinary for males to be interested in both sexes. Then Myron is reported killed during the disastrous overseas war and Alexias is pitted against his uncle, who is technically head of the family until Alexias turns eighteen. The situation changes again when Myron turns up alive, but so embittered by his experiences that he has changed from a democrat to an autocrat. At the same time, Alexias and his lover Lysis begin to find differences in their personalities that make it more difficult for them to remain together. Eventually open battle between factions weakens the combined effort against Sparta and Alcibiades finds himself restored to his position in Athens. Myron abandons the extreme oligarchs although he's not reconciled to the democrats either. More reversals follow and eventually Athens finds itself without allies, besieged, and eventually surrenders to the Spartans, who install a repressive tyranny under which many of the supporting characters die, including Myron. Alexias eventually runs off to join an insurgent force which in due course - and after Alexias kills the man he holds responsible for his father's death - topples the tyrants and restores what passed for democracy in Hellenic Greece. It's a formidable novel that embraces an extensive period of very busy ancient history and places it all in context.
The King Must Die (1958) is the first of two books based on the life of Theseus, imagined as a real person rather than the mythical figure and told from his point of view. As with The Last of the Wine the story opens with Theseus as a child. Since his mother has never told him his father's name, he assumes he is the son of Poseidon until he is nearly eighteen and learns instead that his father is the ruler of distant Athens. Embittered by the knowledge, he sulks for some time and eventually sets out to Athens to meet his father. He learns early on that kings in those days were supposed to sacrifice themselves to the gods when they felt it was necessary for the common good, hence the book's title. Illustrating it even further, his journey is interrupted when he is chosen - against his will - to fight and kill the reigning king of a community which changes leadership annually in this manner. Unfortunately that also means that he has to take his place, to be killed off when his turn comes. As king of Eleusis, he finally goes to Athens as an envoy, reveals his identity to his father, and forges an alliance between the two states, which causes turmoil in the female dominated Eleusis. There is an attempt on his life and a quiet but effective rebellion. So ends the first part of his life story.
The Greek states were at that time paying tribute to King Minos of Crete. Part of that tribute was young men and women, usually chose by lot, who were to become bull dancers, an exotic and generally fatal profession. Theseus insists that his name be entered in the lottery and in due course he finds himself aboard a Cretan ship as part of Athens' tribute. In Crete, he and his companions contrive to stay together as a team, while Theseus incurs the wrath of the king's bastard son, called Minotaurus although his name is Asterion. The king's daughter falls in love with him and he learns that King Minos has been deliberately infected with leprosy by Asterion, who hopes to overthrow him. At the same time he has sent a message to his father that Crete is vulnerable to attack. Before any of their plans can come to fruition, an earthquake and the death of the king lead to what amounts to a civil war amidst catastrophe, and Theseus personally kills Asterion, although he eventually loses the woman he loves as well. I can't recall another author who does such a fine job of evoking a time when people assumed the gods and/or other supernatural forces were a part of every day life - and in fact a few of the incidents in the novel seem to be genuinely magical. One of the best historical novels of all time.
The Bull from the Sea (1962) is the second half of the story of Theseus, starting immediately after his return to Greece from Crete. His father dead, Theseus takes over as king of Athens, subdues Crete, and then begins extending his control to other parts of the mainland. He hopes to impose a single uniform law that will create a more stable and less dangerous land. Early on he meets Pirithoos, a pirate, and the two decided to become friends rather than fight to the death. Despite the early string of conquests, the first half of the novel is rather sedate. The fall of Crete and other conquests take place off stage in a few sentences and the confrontation with Pirithoos ends without a blow falling. Much of the story involves his friendship with Pirithoos and his battle with and subsequent liaison to Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. For political reasons, however, he has to marry the last princess of Crete, Phaedra, whom he only met when she was a child and he a slave. During the only big battle scene in the book, Theseus decides to die for his people but Hippolyta dies instead and the Athenians defeat their enemies. Politics become more intense as Phaedra tries to seduce Theseus' son by Hippolyta as part of a plot to kill Theseus, but the plan backfires. He remains true but dies, as does Phaedra, and Theseus' declining years are lonely and bitter. Less adventurous than the first volume, and much darker in spirit.
The Mask of Apollo (1966) follows the life of a professional actor in ancient Greece. Following the death of his father, Niko is forced to join a second rate traveling show where he almost immediately makes an enemy among the cast. A few years later, now a seasoned performer, he is nearly killed by that old enemy during a flying stunt on stage. This brings him to the attention of Dion, a prominent noble from Syracuse visiting the mainland to attend a general peace conference designed to bring an end to the internecine wars that have troubled the Greeks for generations. He is chosen to star in a play by the tyrant of Syracuse who has ruled for two generations, and when the play wins a festival, it means that Niko and his company can visit Syracuse to meet the playwright and perform the play in his honor. Unfortunately, the tyrant dies the day Niko arrives and the rest of his company flees in a panic lest they be named as a bad omen. Niko stays and is eventually asked by the dead tyrant's son to real the eulogy at the funeral service, which is a great honor but gives him a taste of what politics is like. At the same time he is approached by Dion, nephew of the tyrant, who wants him to carry a letter back to Plato in Greece asking him to come to the city and help influence the young heir in the right direction. Niko loses the letter when he is shipwrecked but decides that he is obligated to try to convince Plato by his own words to do as the letter requested. Closely paralleling actual history, Plato goes to Syracuse and briefly convinces the new tyrant to enforce some unpopular laws, including closing the theaters as being impious, although the latter's penchant for debauchery leads him to be influenced in the other direction.
Eventually Dion is sent into exile and becomes very popular in mainland Greece. Niko rises to the top of his profession and takes an apprentice, who is also his lover. The two strands of plot diverge for a while, but then events conspire to bring Dion back to Syracuse as head of an invasion force. The populace rises in his favor but the ruling clique has a fortified inner city where they resist long enough for outside pressures to work in their favor. A rival to Dion leads the navy and treacherously divides the forces of the popular revolution. Dion is driven from the city with some of his supporters, but his rival is incompetent and it looks like the old guard might successfully win the battle. An appeal is sent to Dion who somewhat reluctantly returns and eventually both of his enemies are expelled, one murdered, the other exiled in relative poverty. Niko loses track of him for years but then returns with an urgent message that Dion's life is in danger from a cabal led by one of his trusted lieutenants. He refuses to believe the news and, naturally, he is murdered not long after. This was the beginning of the end for Syracuse, formerly the greatest power in Greek civilization, now depopulated, the city partly ruined, never recovered and went through a series of tyrants for the next couple of generations.
As always Renault brings the age to life. The title refers to a wooden mask of Apollo which Niko carries with him throughout his life. Actors in these days, in addition to being exclusively male, always wore masks that covered their entire heads. Niko is particularly fond of this mask which he believes is his personal link to the god, and he sometimes fancies that the mask is speaking to him. As with her earlier books, the novel evokes a time when people always had the gods in mind, felt that they were being watched, guided, or manipulated. Although she mentions in the afterword that she had to make up much of the detail about how theater groups operated in the fourth century B.C., she does so convincingly.
Renault's next novel was Fire from Heaven (1969). It opens with the man we know as Alexander the Great growing up in the household of Philip of Macedon - and it suggests that Philip was not really his father although he may not have known it. Macedon is independent of the Persian Empire because of its superior military training, but is still considered a renegade barbarian state. Renault mentions the various rumors about Alexander - such as that he was the son of Zeus - but there is no suggestion that any of the fantastic elements are true. Driven to compete with his father, Alexander takes wild chances that demonstrate early on that he has a gift for military strategy. He also has to learn enough politics to thread his way between his mother and father, who hate each other. As he turns fourteen, Aristotle is brought to be his teacher. The relationships among himself and his two parents fluctuate but are almost always characterized with hostility even when they are otherwise on good terms. Philip expects Alexander to be his heir, forgives him after he rebels and joins his enemies briefly, and they are relatively reconciled when Philip is assassinated, which ends the novel but not Renault's account of Alexander's life. Like all of his previous books, the rendering of this ancient culture is detailed and convincing. Unlike those earlier books, the viewpoint character is not particularly admirable although he is clearly brilliant.
The story of Alexander continues in The Persian Boy (1972) but is told from a different viewpoint, that of a slave boy who becomes the bedtime companion of King Darius of Persia and then lover of Alexander the Great. Alexander is offstage for most of the first half of the novel as we see Bagaos progress from slave in a minor household to intimate, no pun intended, of Darius. Darius was in decline and he had never been a good general. Despite superior numbers he is routed in battle after battle until his own satraps betray him, take him prisoner, and hand him over to the young Alexander. Bagaos becomes a fugitive for a time although he feels no ingrained loyalty to the throne. In due course he falls in with one of the Persian aristocrats who gives him to Alexander as part of his peace offering. Although not a slave, Bagaos has no other life and in fact the two young men become friends and lovers in short order, sometimes to the dismay of Alexander's friend Hephaistion. Despite growing difficulties with supply and morale, Alexander pursues those of his enemies who have not surrendered. The Persians still consider him a barbarian and Bagaos tries to teach him to act more like a Persian king - aloof and other worldly - but Alexander insists that his soldiers would not follow him if he did not participate in their hardships.
Chinks begin appearing in Alexander's aura of invulnerability. He is wounded twice and taken sick once. He begins to drink too much wine. He also has to deal with the conflicting customs between his Macedonian and Persian followers. The Persians believe in prostrating themselves before their king while the Macedonians reserve this honor for the gods. The difference causes tensions between the two camps, and also a split among the high ranking Macedonians, some of whom try to use the conflict for their own purposes. In a drunken rage, Alexander kills another Macedonian, which causes him considerable anguish, and he chooses a bride, which does the same for the jealous Bagoas. Renault follows Alexander until his death, staying very close to the historical record, and portrays him as a brilliant and admirable man who had predictable weaknesses and occasional character flaws.
Renault's next was The Praise Singer (1978). It is a reconstruction of the life of the singer Simonides, an actual historical figure who became a renowned wandering minstrel of sorts. The story begins on the island of Keos where he is unhappily a shepherd with a stern father. He has hidden his ability to sing and compose when another famous singer arrives to serenade a wedding party and manages to become the man's apprentice. The next few years pass quickly, but at eighteen he and his mentor are on the periphery of the war by Persia to dominate the Greek cities. Eventually Simonides has to strike out on his own and his adventures take him to several parts of Greece, though his adventures are actually rather low key. The largest section is set in Athens. He lives through some tumultuous times - in an age when "tyrants" were actually more likely to have the welfare of the common citizens at heart than were the "democratic" governments. Although there are some good sections, however, this is rather disappointing after the earlier books, with not much happening, a character of only marginal interest, and a period of time much less volatile than in Renault's other historical fiction.
Renault's last novel was Funeral Games (1981). It opens with the death of Alexander the Great, still young, after contracting a fever. His closest friend had died shortly beforehand, so there was no clear successor to his authority. He had two pregnant wives, but neither was Macedonian, both might be female, and there was even some rumor that he might not be their real father. His chief officers were split, some hoping to supplant him, some working for a division of his empire, others uncertain about what they wanted. By Macedonian tradition, the soldiers had the right to elect their new king in the absence of a clear successor, but that right was complicated because they had been integrated with Persian and other races into a much broader army. So the officers and wives were all actively plotting, and even those with no chance for power themselves were looking for a way to protect or enhance their own positions. Only Bagoas, who narrates The Persian Boy, seems to have honestly mourned Alexander's passing. As an interim measure, one faction forces the acknowledgment of Alexander's brother as king, but Arridaios is mentally still a child, timid and easily pressured. The dissolution is rapid and violent. One wife is poisoned with her unborn baby, a faction leader is humiliated and assassinated, others split the empire and begin fighting one another. It's all rather depressing, though historically accurate.