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Review: Memnon by Scott Oden

Memnon follows the life of Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek commander serving the Achaemenid Empire. Historically Memnon fought against Alexander the Great, though the book also envisions his early life. So far as I’m aware, Oden crafted many of the details himself.

Which kind of brings me to the highlight of the book … the sense of time and place. Evocative prose paints a living picture of the Classical world while the sudden, brutal violence serves to remind us never to look at history through rose-colored glasses.

This is pure historical fiction, not historical fantasy like some of Oden’s other work, and consequently a little different than the things I usually review here. This, in turn, may lead to my one criticism for an otherwise enjoyable read–being bound by what is known of the history of Memnon, the novel jumps around, unbound by traditional structures of plot. The dramatic murder of Memnon’s father is … never avenged. It forces him to leave his home, and by the time he returns many years later, the murderer himself is already dead through no action of Memnon’s.

Such subversion of expected tropes is probably inevitable when attempting anything resembling a biography of a real person, but it did sometimes feel–like life, I suppose–as more a series of loosely related vignettes than a cohesive single tale. Each section was interesting in its own right, of course.

*SPOILER WARNING*

The book also considers conceptions of destiny. Both Alexander and Memnon have almost meteoric rises to glory, seeming destined for greatness. Both sputter out and die with a cough rather than in a final blaze of glory–as if destiny changed its mind at the last minute. The book focuses on Memnon, with Alexander himself appearing in only a few scenes … but I suspect Oden deliberately tried to mirror their rise and fall.

Well worth the read for those interested in Greek history.

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