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Name: Alexander: Child of a Dream
Author: Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Released: 1998 (Italian) 2001 (English)
Series: Alexander Trilogy
Alexandrian history is one of my passions in life. The exotic heroic adventures have been embellished, retold, twisted and transformed many of times, but in 1998 Italian writer Valerio Massimo Manfredi, wrote down in three parts the life of Alexander. The first novel 'Child of a Dream' depicts in a sort of biographical form, the early years of Alexander the Great. Does it capture your attention throughout however? It takes a skilled writer to mix fiction with fact and pull it off successfully. Is Manfredi that type of writer?
A Little About . . . Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Manfredi is a 'mature' Italian author, but is a renowned journalist and historian too. Born in 1943 in a town called Castelfranco Emilia, Manfredi has had fourteen novel published to date as well as many more non-fiction accounts and essays. His wife, Christine Manfredi, translates his work from Italian into English.
All three of his 'Alexander' novels were originally published in 1998 in Italian. However, it wasn't until three years later that they were translated for our reading pleasure.
He currently resides in Bologna, Italy.
'Who could have been born to conquer the world other than a god? A boy, born to be a great king - Philip of Macedon - and his sensuous queen, Olympias. Alexander became a young man of immense, unfathomable potential. Under the tutelage of the great Aristotle and the friendship of Ptolemy and Hephaiston, he became the mightiest and most charismatic warrior, capable of subjugating the known world to his power.'
Born to Philip, King of Macedon and Queen Olympias, the young Alexander has huge dreams and infamous influences. Not only does he expect a lot from himself, but as Prince of Macedon, a lot is expected from him. It isn't easy though; life in ancient Greece is chaotic and through hard work and determination, Philip has managed to transform a collection of Barbarian city states into a fully fledged civilisation. Alexander is set to inherit all of this.
Tutored in combat and internal politics he is later moved away from the palace to be taught by the famous Aristotle, which in turn gives him vital life skills needed to rule as King. Surrounded by his small group of close friends, Alexander, though still young, must learn to make important decisions in battle whilst handling the abuse of his alcoholic father and vindictive obsessed mother. This is a story that combines interesting historic factual events with life changing choices. With distant Persia always a threat, what choices does Alexander make and more importantly are they the right ones?
It must be hard to write a story about a man when his life has been told so many times before. But it has to be said that Manfredi does so with a skilful hand and writing wit that ultimately sheds smaller insights and at first glances, unimportant detail as well as including the more well known aspects of Alexander's life.
Whilst reading, you suddenly cannot help but realise that Manfredi is an unbiased writer; he never puts Alexander up on the famous pedestal. Behind the legendary face lies a boy, who yes is privileged to be royalty, though still must learn to get through his teenage years and grown into a man. He had to figure out his place in the world and I think this is really a fantastic gem of an undertone that runs throughout this first book.
To say Alexander's life is like an episode of Eastenders would be greatly melodramatic, but the dramas and events that unfold in here are very much on a soap opera scale. His father and king loves to drink and Alexander feels excluded from his father's personal life, but behind his macho façade is a father who only wants what is best for his son. His mother suffers from paranoid delusions and tries to project them onto her son. It is these personal 'everyday' incidents that make you appreciate just how detailed this book is. It isn't just a historical novel depicting fact after fact. There is a very real story to be told and it as a result lures the reader in, quite successfully too.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the story just revolves around the young prince, but people from Philip, Aristotle, Olympias to best friend Hephaestion all have personal moments here. It is really addictive story telling and allows the novel to escape the box and become more dimensional.
To have a successful lead character, you must really connect and or like them or really loathe them (but secretly want to know more). That is why little inclusions of story telling are required to project Alexander: Child of a Dream from historical biography into a historical adventure novel. At one moment in the book for example, Alexander sees a slave girl in a labour camp and feels obliged to save her from the rotten life she was destined for. Though admirable, as the reader, you have to think to yourself; is this fact or fiction? I don't actually know, but what I can tell is that Manfredi uses this moment for various things.
Firstly, it draws upon our feelings regarding slavery without our own society. Notice that Alexander is distressed by what he sees and therefore it draws us to relate to him. Also Manfredi uses the opportunity to give us a lesson in Macedonian social policies - all through the mouth of Philip. In essence, we learn along with Alexander. It is a unique form of story telling that works really well.
Manfredi uses a nice balance of descriptive language to fluff up his imagery with precise historic detail. His use of similes and metaphors are quite flamboyant sometimes, very much like the ancient writers Homer and Virgil. I was very pleased I can tell you. However one problem bound to arise from this type of novel is the constant use of place names, regions and semantics. To an everyday Joe Bloggs reader, this can disrupt the flow of reading and sadly at times it does.
Another let down from Alexander: Child of a Dream is the rushed ending. Alexander is preparing for war, but also fighting battles in his own region. At times Manfredi skips over the detail extremely quickly to get to the end. Months pass in the space of sentences and it all results in a sort of avalanche, leaving the reader bewildered as to what happens next.
I however, forgetting the rushed end, thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I had never read a Manfredi novel before this and his reputation did not disappoint. I cannot wait to read the next in the series. The writing is educated but easily accessible and simple to follow. I loved learning about things I didn't know, but felt a real longing to experience Alexander's plights along with him. I highly recommend this to any type of reader and don't worry Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie are nowhere to be seen. The hardback edition is quite rare to get a hold of now, but the paperback version is cheap enough from Amazon or Waterstones.
"Alexander stood at the bow wearing armour covered with silver laminate and on his head was a shining helmet of the same metal, but in the shape of a lion's head with its jaws wide open. His greaves bore an embossed pattern and he carried a sword with an ivory hilt which had belonged to his father. In his right hand he gripped a spear with an ash-wood shaft and a head of gold; it flashed light at his every movement, like Zeus's thunderbolt."
The first part of Manfredi's Alexander Trilogy, Child of a Dream follows the story of Alexander the Great from his birth up to the death of his father King Phillip II of Macedon and the very beginning of Alexander's invasion of Persia.
As well as being a popular novelist, Valerio Massimo Manfredi (believe it or not he is an Italian gentleman) is also a working historian and archaeologist, though, I understand, not a very prominent one. It's a wonder he has time to tie his shoe laces as he has published nearly twenty novels since the early 80s, most of which have been translated into English. Almost all are historical fiction written for popular consumption with a smattering of - usually unsuccessful - pretension toward higher literature. His mediocre 2002 novel The Last Legion was made into an even worse movie of the same name starring the famous action hero Colin Firth.
The most successful of his works, both financially and in my opinion critically, is his Alexander Trilogy. Part One gets off to a shaky start, however, with a hokey opening depicting four magi of Persia receiving a terrible portent about the future of the kingdom. Manfredi is clearly creating an atmosphere and immediately setting out one of themes - that Alexander was a force of nature as much as a man - but it's still groan-out-loud corny. Things soon settle down as Alexander is born and we see him growing up against a background of his father Phillip II expanding and consolidating his hegemony over the Greeks, Thracians and barbarians of the north.
Alexander's personality begins to be sketched out as he plays with his friends - the children of Macedonian nobility who will become his lifelong companions and eventual successors. He is raised to be aware that he is heir to the throne, that he is being groomed for greatness and that his responsibilities will also be greater than that of his friends, that he will ultimately be responsible for all of them. This, of course, affects his character as he grows up. Manfredi is surprisingly brilliant with Alexander's psychology and the development through his youth feels authentic as the author gets deep into the mind of this man - something that can't be said for almost all other historical fiction (for example Conn Iggulden's Caesar series) and in fact is done better here than in any other I have read and, alongside the story itself, is surely a reason for its astonishing success.
Alexander is tutored by the great Aristotle for years and we see his intellectual development, alongside his complex emotional growth. Here, continuing his focus on his protagonist's internal self, Manfredi introduces a theme than runs through the entire trilogy - Alexander's contradictions. He was clearly capable of great clemency (to Darius' family) as well as terrible retribution (the razing of Tyre). He thought highly of Athenian democracy even though he was himself a king, he approached great enterprises with a calm logic though was often overtaken by uncontrollable anger and so on. Great characters are great because of their flaws and Manfredi's Alexander has bags of them. He proper likes a drink too.
The book rounds off with a few of the other famous parts of the legend - Alexander falling out with his dad, Phillip's assassination, and Alexander's grief and preparations for his invasion. It's quite faithful to legends/history as far as I know it - there's the Battle of Chaeronaea, and the subsequent clemency granted the Athenians and the destruction of Thebes, nicely foreshadowing Alexander's later behaviour. It's all quite exciting and even though there are a few duller moments the pace is rapid enough to keep you turning the page late into the night as well as being detailed enough to get to know all the characters.
The writing is better in this series than any other Manfredi I have read, quite possibly because this one is a translation from the Italian by a geezer called Iain Halliday, whereas the others were by Manfredi's wife Christine. It's still not great, though, and much of the description feels forced and doesn't flow at all well. More than this, the dialogue is often awful and about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Check out this scintillating piece from a romance between minor characters, "I am most grateful. I am also especially pleased that you chose to accompany me. I have heard that you are very brave." Still, despite all of this there is still something about the quality of the writing that shines through. It has a certain confidence to it, verve and vitality, a sense of assurance that makes it an enjoyable experience to read.
As a whole, it's full of sex and violence (generally not at the same time) and charts the coming of age of one of history's greatest (and most horrendous, murderous etc) men and while for obvious reasons it's not as exciting as parts two and three, you have to read this in order to get there, and it's well worth doing so. When you read the final pages of this one you'll certainly be reaching for part two - the Sands of Ammon - without a pause.
Oh and there are four maps at the start of the book showing the Greek and Persian worlds detailed in the books, which are incredibly helpful to the reader's understanding of the events and should be a feature in every historical fiction, I say.
An evocation of ancient Greece, this first volume of Alexander describes how the combined discipline and passion of his parents formed the talented Alexander, protege of Aristotle, and then portrays the start of his great adventure to conquer the civilized world in ancient times.