Monday, January 31, 2011

The Supporting Cast is the Lead – Memnon

In my continuing quest to read historical fiction based on ancient Greece, I ran into “Memnon”, a tale that takes place during the age of Alexander the Great. Last year I read the novel Virtues of War that presented Alexander’s rise from his point of view. It was an intriguing character study that worked well.

Author Scott Oden took a different tact, by basing the novel around one of Alexander’s enemies, and so we get a very different view of the Macedonian conqueror. The story revolves around Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek mercenary who finds himself allied with the powerful Persian lord Artabazus. We follow Memnon from his youth in Rhodes, and through the forging a powerful leader of men. Oden even has Memnon meet Alexander while Artabazus is in exile in Macedonia.

Things get really interesting as Memnon comes to realize that Alexander presents a greater threat than his father ever did. Being experienced in battling with and against the Macedonian forces Memnon attempts to bring his knowledge to the famous battle of Granicus River. But internal politics on the Persian side keeps Memnon’s advice from being heeded. Disaster results. The climax of the story occurs when Alexander reaches the city of Halicarnassus. He begins his siege and Memnon comes up with a plan to make Alexander pay for the city with as many lives as possible.

Memnon is a pretty interesting character. He’s smart, able to read people very well, brave to a fault and not willing to give up. But he does suffer from a plight that many heroic figures end up with in novels. He’s never wrong. A little of this goes a long way, but I think Oden wanted to show that Memnon was an equal to Alexander’s strategic powers, but it was Alexander’s luck that allowed him to defeat Memnon. Still, the protagonist never makes a bad decision or misjudgment. Sure, it may appear to be so at first, but he’s always proven right in the end.

Honestly this is a minor quibble. The story has so many interesting characters, and a perspective that I don’t see often in fiction based in this time period. Usually its Alexander or his men we are linked to, it’s rare to see it from the opposing side. Picking Memnon was a great move. Little is known about him for certain, so Oden was able to give him an intriguing back-story and interaction with the Persians and his brother Mentor. This combined with the exciting historical details made for an excellent read.

Have you ever read a book that took place from the point of view of a lesser known historical figure, or one that was on the losing side of a conflict? Did it work? Do you think this would be easier or more difficult to write?

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