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Heroes in the Dust


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Success Stories

by Jennifer Macaire

herocover.jpg

ISBN 1 74100 130 7 (paperback), 1 74100 128 5 (e-book)
Published by Jacobyte Books, 2003
245pp, paperback
Retail price US$11.48; $19.00 (Australian)

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

Let's not beat about the bush; I found this book a total delight. The pleasant surprises began with the concept. For reasons I won't go into here, the name of Alexander the Great is a special one in our household, and, since I hadn't seen the book's cover until I unzipped the electronic file, I hadn't guessed the subject matter from the title alone.

Beginning the second book in Jennifer Macaire's "Iskander" series, without having read the first, might have been a handicap in terms of enjoyment. Fortunately, she includes a concise update within the framework of the first chapter, and the reader quickly becomes familiar with characters and situation, without being bored to tears by long-winded explanations.

Humour might seem out of place in a book about Alexander, so let me add that this is no ordinary historical novel. Okay, so time travel is not an unusual subject for fiction - this is the third book on the subject I've reviewed for this web site alone - but there are various ways of approaching it, and Ms Macaire chooses to do so with a little of her tongue in her cheek. Here's her pen-picture of Onesicrite:

The man in front of me was small and well built, but he wore a perpetual frown. He would have been quite handsome if he'd only smile a bit. He had those dark, feverish eyes women swoon over. Not that he would even glance at a woman. He was madly in love with Nearchus, Alexander's admiral.

It's not a parody or a satire, but a style of writing that brings out the natural humour in situations. It is one the average reader will find engaging and entertaining, even if that reader is not, like me, an Alexander the Great enthusiast. It would be wrong to deny that the idiomatic language grated on me a little at times. The book was published in Australia, where linguistic habits are different and a phrase like "the heat radiating off of the clay pots" is presumably acceptable. Yet the author is quite capable of elegant prose when she has a mind, and many of the descriptions of people and places are quite beautiful.

Perhaps it's because of her gender that she takes an original slant on the past. Time-travel books by men tend to concentrate on the scientific aspects, the temporal paradoxes and what-have-you, whereas female authors are more interested in the human beings who inhabited the period where they choose to send their characters. Jennifer Macaire chooses the ancient world wisely, it being an intellectually sophisticated era that has more in common with the present day than some of the times between. Alexander, or "Iskander" as he is known to his friends, comes across as the modern man he undoubtedly was. To observe him through the appraising eyes of a twenty-first century American woman is especially revealing, if fanciful. At the same time, the curiosities of his world (ancient ways of making toothpaste, for example) have been carefully researched and are presented skilfully so as to keep incongruities at bay. Despite the large number of characters, almost all male, it wasn't difficult to follow the story, partly because she concentrates on portraying the human characteristics of each individual; this is something few authors of fiction are able to master.

One of the oldest literary devices in the world is the use of a stranger, an alien, to highlight the values and idiosyncrasies of a particular culture. Ashley "of the sacred sandals", being from the future, looks at the Greeks and Macedonians as an outsider, but one who already knows exactly how things are going to turn out and, naturally, can do nothing to change the course of history. Alexander himself is no disappointment, but is substantially different from the Alexander of legends and history books and you can't help thinking that our heroine has had a lucky break in finding him to be every bit as attractive and fascinating as she foresaw when she planned her trip into the past.

Not all is entertainment. There are many tragic moments, moments that are treated with sad resignation rather than misery and depression. This is, I feel, quite in keeping with the ancient mindset, which viewed military setbacks and individual misfortunes as dictated by fate and therefore saw despair as a pointless activity. Ashley herself, though dreading the hour when history, not destiny, will take her husband from her, wastes no time pondering on it. "Why is it you aren't jealous of my other wives?" asks Alexander. "Because I am the one with you," she replies.

In love, too, the ancients have much in common with the present day. Bisexuality is not considered abnormal, and Alexander's male lover, Plexis, is also Ashley's. The understanding shared by the trio is touching, never making the reader feel uncomfortable, and it is on this hopeful and tender note that the book ends. I really think I may have to break my usual rule and buy the next one.