Re-creating the lives of two of the most intriguing rulers in history, Shan Sa brings us a novel filled with the sound of hooves, the whistle of arrows, blood, passion, and betrayal. The familiar figure of Alexander the Great comes to new life in this richly imagined tale, which entwines his historical legacy with a fantastic love affair set in a wartime between Western and Eastern civilizations.
Abused by his father, King Philip, who loved and hated his beauty; shadowed by his mother, the mystical and overbearing Queen Olympias; educated by Aristotle who wanted him to be a wise philosopher of Macedonia, Alexander develops a complex character. He becomes a brutal warrior, a pitiless strategist, and a poet longing for the world's wonders. Meanwhile, in the remote steppes of Siberia, an abandoned girl grows up among the wild mares, then adopted by the queen of the Amazons – the tribe of female warriors who dominates a wild world of snow and volcano. As a future queen, the young girl is trained to hate men and to fight against all invaders.
In the course of his great conquest of Asia, Alexander first meets the stunning Alestria on the battlefield. Surprised to find that his adversary is a woman, he is instantly smitten by the fierce queen. Dazzled by his strength, she decides to kidnap him and make him her "wife." At last, this legendary king – renowned for his beauty and love of men – has found his equal. And at last, this indomitable young woman has found a reason to leave her tribe. Their love, deeply passionate and problematic, evolves against an exotic backdrop of warfare and political turmoil, sweeps from antique Greece to Egypt, across the ancient Iraq and Iran, unto the mysterious kingdoms of India.
"An epic fictional romance between Alexander the Great and an Amazon queen drives the latest from Shan Sa (Empress). As a boy, Sa's Alexander is abused by his father, King Philip of Macedonia. Alexander grows into a cruel and narcissistic youth with an unquenchable thirst for revenge. His political ambitions blossom under the tutelage of Aristotle, and after his father's assassination, Alexander sets off to conquer Greece, Persia and Egypt. When he meets Alestria, the young queen of the Amazons (a mythical tribe of nomadic, male-spurning female warriors from the eastern steppes), he has perhaps met his match in love and war. Told in the extravagant voices of Alexander and Alestria, and of Alestria's protector and confidante, Ania, there's little subtlety in this sweeping, heroic romance. But strewn amid the pageantry and clamor are fascinating details about Alexander's world and about the legendary Amazons, who, if they existed at all, might have been his contemporaries – and equals. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Romance, action, and intrigue combine to set the stage for a page-turning romp through alternate history." Booklist
Alexander and Alestria
TRANSLATED BY ADRIANA HUNTER
Y ou are the flame of this unfinished life
You are the glory of an invincible warrior
I, Alexander of Macedonia, son of Philip, king of kings, conqueror of the Greeks, came into this world on the night of a great fire.
The temple of Artemis was alight. Ocher and yellow flames, forests of sparks and twisting wreaths of smoke, spilled into the sky. Thick clouds settled on villages in which every soul had taken refuge indoors, terrified by the fury of the divine huntress.
By the time of my first memory I can already run to the top of the hill. My mother, who dresses me as a girl, takes me to play among the ruins. There are fragments of burned stone scattered in the grass, and wild flowers exhale their bitter fragrance. Wearing a white tunic and sandals with golden straps and with my hair in braids, I stumble up a collapsed flight of steps, hide behind a fallen column, and laugh when the slaves walk past without seeing me. My mother watches me. She tells me of a great temple wiped out by fire, and warns that fire alone is indestructible.
As an adolescent I went back to that hill where the ruins, in turn, had disappeared. A new temple had been built with painted columns, and frescoes along the pediment and arches. My father tells me that Artemis and Apollo were twins. Artemis was born first, already clothed and armed, and she helped her mother bring Apollo into the world. Horrified by the suffering of childbirth, she made a vow of chastity. My father chose to dedicate the new temple to Apollo because, he claimed, my birth had brought an end to the inconsistent world of the moon, of poetic virgins and wandering bacchantes. With me came the era of the sun, of conquerors and lovers devoted to the rages of war.
I, Alexander, whose name means male succor and the protection of warriors, was born prince of a kingdom of peasants and soldiers. My father, Philip, sent gifts and silver to families that brought boys into the world. He took care of the boys' physical education and put them in training as soon as they were six. Royal envoys scoured the villages once a year during the celebrations dedicated to Zeus, selecting the tallest, strongest, and most deft boy children to turn them into the best warriors on earth.
Having a soldier in the family was an honor. Every Macedonian household had at least one. Parents whose son had just enlisted in the army and who were losing a pair of hands to work in the fields were handsomely compensated by my father. He promised them the unimaginable spoils of conquered cities. He turned war into an opportunity for everyone to grow rich.
Money and strength were then but one. There was nothing we valued more highly than a man's strength. The Macedonians had been trading on their valor and military expertise for a long time, and neighboring cities paid them to fight their enemies and die for them. My father brought an end to this bartering. He explained to our soldiers that they could not put a price on a Macedonian's life and that selling our strength was wasting a valuable resource.
At the time of my birth our people was fighting for riches and my father for power. The divisions among the Greeks played into my father's hands, and he asserted his authority over everyone as Agamemnon had in the days of Troy. He reigned over the Athenians, the Thebans, and the Spartans while all around him men and women schemed to take his place. During her pregnancy my mother constantly hid herself, convinced that people wanted Philip to have no heir.
I, Alexander, son of Philip, king of the Macedonians, and Olympias, daughter of the king of Epirus, I, descendant of Achilles and Zeus, came into this world in a poor village, close to the temple of Artemis. Apollo is my god and protector.
Macedonia, my country, I was born for your high mountains and deep valleys. I grew strong in your forests and meadows. Soon I was running to join in the Feast of Horses and babbling the word "horse," which lends itself to so many expressions of strength and speed. Early in the morning I sat on the balustrade of the terrace at the very top of my white palace, and watched women in brightly colored aprons and red skirts as they drove their flocks toward the hills. Clouds glided across a blue sky, followed by their shifting shadows. I peered at the horizon. The sea was far away, farther than the hazy line lit up by the blazing dawn. Way over there Neptune was blowing into his horn and raising a storm; Achilles was sailing for Troy, city of his demise, which would render him immortal; Ulysses was drifting from one island to another, haunted by the sirens. He too would go down in legend.
My mother came over to me, her long black braid wound round her head, her body draped in a white tunic. She took me in her arms, enveloping me in her perfume. I buried myself in her embrace as avidly as a honeybee looking for nectar in the most beautiful flower in Macedonia. She was young and beautiful, daughter of the gods whose whims she described for me, daughter of the heroes whose capricious acts she whispered to me. Her velvet voice transformed bloody wars into lovers' tiffs, monsters of the abyss into cooing birds. Her gaze lingered in the invisible sea. I watched her smile and grow sad, I watched her weep but was unable to console her. My mother bore a secret in her heart.
I could not understand the obsession men had with war. There was nothing more lovely than soft fabrics, colored stones, and women's laughter. In summer the town seemed to float in the heat. I lay in the shade of orange trees with my head on my mother's stomach. Slaves burned grasses and herbs to drive away insects, and they waved palm fronds to cool me. In winter in this vast terraced palace, my loneliness was equally vast. The empty palace echoed to the sound of my mother's singing. She taught me about the lives of plants and the names of birds. I drank in her words as an infant drinks milk.
Sometimes peasants would bring us injured animals: a bird with a broken wing, a limping dog, an orphaned monkey, snakes, and bees. Olympias healed them, and by her side, they regained their strength.
"When you want to talk to an animal, don't move," she told me. "Don't look at it. Keep your eyes on a nearby plant, a tree, a patch of sky. Forget that you are Alexander. Let the animal's thoughts come to you."
That was a time when I knew more about the language of toads and goats and vipers than the language of men.
The men always came back. Their hurried footsteps, their shouting and hearty laughter, echoed round. The smell of wine and sweat and weapons spread. The door creaked noisily, and my father appeared. I ran behind a drape. His one eye swept over the room, turning me to stone. If Philip was in a good mood, he would grab my legs in his great hands and throw me in the air. If Philip was drunk, he would grab me by the hair and bellow. He would rip my girl's clothes, call me a bastard, and threaten to throw me into the lions' den. My mother came to save me, but Philip heaved me up above his head. His tightly curled hair had a strong animal smell. His shouts reverberated through me so that my whole body shook with fear. He cursed Olympias and her family, swearing he would slit her adulterous throat and bury her bastard child alive. He called her a witch, accused her of plotting against him and wanting to overthrow him. He would only drop me back to the ground once he had made my mother weep and terrorized me.
The warriors took their places as pitchers of wine were carried along the corridors. Whole roast calves on silver trays converged on the feasting hall. There, by torchlight, mouths covered in scars gleamed with grease as they popped olives and grapes. My father sat in pride of place. Beneath his thick fair eyebrows, a flame danced in the heart of his one blue eye. He held forth about military operations yet to be perpetrated and kingdoms yet to be conquered. I hid behind a column and listened, fascinated by his booming voice but not understanding a word. The clamor was deafening. Philip poured wine down his throat with one hand and delved into the belly of a roast calf with the other. He drank quickly and ate too much. Pleasure-that sweet, slow progressive sensation-was unknown to him. He liked only instant gratifications so that he could move on to the next.
When the servant women found me, they took me away forcibly and shut me in my room. I leaned on the windowsill, watching lights twinkling around the town. All of Pella was feasting with the king. When the moon was bright I could see naked men walking through the gardens and terraces. They chased each other through the grass and disappeared into the trees. One day the slaves forgot to block my door, and I slipped out of my room. I came round a bend in a corridor and saw Philip almost naked. He was fighting with a young man. They were both groaning. I froze at the sight of them. Fascinated by their thighs and stomachs, I could not tear my eyes away. My father gave long rasping moans that terrified me. I ran to my room in tears and hid under the bed.