The Mad Reviewer, April 2012
Perhaps it’s the fact that I prattle on about history constantly, but I can guarantee you that everyone in my family and small circle of friends has heard of Gaius Julius Caesar. How could they not when he is such a cultural phenomenon, even two thousand years later? Yet while Julius Caesar is a household name, very few people have heard of Marcus Licinius Crassus. Even among historians, he is dismissed as the weak third member of the First Triumvirate, nothing more than the man who bankrolled the wars of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. But in The Other Alexander, I believe Andrew Levkoff has done for Crassus what Pauline Gedge did for Kamose Tao or what Robert Graves did for Claudius.
In a style reminiscent of Wilbur Smith’s Egyptian novels, Andrew Levkoff chronicles the life of Crassus through the eyes of his unfortunate slave Alexandros, called Alexander. Alexander is very similar to Smith’s Taita in the way he becomes invaluable to his master and ends up running the household. Also like Smith’s Taita, he constantly reflects on life with the complex, sometimes arrogant mind of a philosopher. Alexander’s forceful personality is part of what makes him a good character, but he makes the jump from a good character to a great character because he is full of contradictions, just like real people.
The first few chapters are slowly paced to draw the reader in without completely disorienting them with the foreign world of ancient Rome. However, the pace picks up steadily throughout the novel and by the end it rivals Conn Iggulden’s famously fast-paced novels. However, unlike Conn Iggulden, Andrew Levkoff does not change history so blatantly. As far as I know, The Other Alexander is one of the most historically accurate pieces of historical fiction I’ve ever read. You can certainly tell there was a great deal of research and care put into this novel.
My only true criticism is that this should have been proofread better. I caught several missing quotation marks in the dialogue and even the use of ‘pray’ instead of ‘prey’ in this passage on page 256:
“In that case, Gaius, you are nothing. Pray on some other patrician’s wife.”
Yet these mistakes do not detract from the overall quality of the novel and I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in Roman history, particularly that of the late Republic.
I give this book 4.5/5 stars.
(Carrie Slager was kind enough to comb the novel for other nits I had missed, and the latest editions are now bug-free)
Publishers Weekly, April, 2012
From the February, 2012 issue of Historical Novel Society:
To see the entire page, click here.
Four Stars (out of Five)
“A word of advice,” cautions Alexander, the narrator and hero of Andrew Levkoff’s The Bow of
Heaven. “If you can possibly avoid it, do not get shot.” Such wry asides are plentiful in this tale
of a Greek student “harvested and swept up to feed Rome’s insatiable appetite” for the slaves
“upon which that lumbering beast’s survival depended.”
Levkoff has chosen to tell the story of Marcus Licinius Crassus—the richest man in
Rome during his day, the original benefactor and sponsor of Gaius Julius Caesar, and the
commander who oversaw the campaign to put down the revolt of Spartacus—through the eyes of
a slave. The novel focuses more on the trials and tribulations of those who serve a great house
than on the triumphs and tragedies of those who rule it. Whole chapters are devoted to romantic
and other interpersonal relationships among the staff, while Crassus’s greatest moments—the
Spartacus campaign, the Catiline Conspiracy—are skipped over and told as afterthoughts.
Despite this rather unusual and at times unsatisfactory tactic (at least to fans of Roman
historical fiction), Levkoff does manage to paint his readers a very believable—though perhaps
too sympathetic—portrait of a man who was once the most formidable power in the ancient
world. Levkoff does so while keeping the audience entertained with the soap opera bubbling
about in the kitchens, work rooms, and slave quarters of Crassus’s villa.
The slave Alexander is Crassus’s confidant and conscience and, at times and quite
literally, also his whipping boy. Levkoff does not let his readers forget that while Alexander
comes to lead a life of privilege and comfort due to his master’s generosity, the Greek remains
“but still a slave.” How Alexander is treated by the petulant and pompous Caesar, for example,
speaks volumes on the lives and character of both men.
Thoroughly researched, beautifully written, and cleverly staged, The Bow of Heaven is a
unique and engaging look at Rome in the first century before the Common Era. It is also the first
in a series, the second of which is previewed in the final pages of the novel. Book Two will focus
on Crassus’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Parthia, a disastrous campaign that humbled Rome, cost
the great man his life, and thus removed the one block that kept Pompey Magnus and Julius
Caesar from tearing the republic apart. If Levkoff continues the excellent work he demonstrates
in Book One, Book Two is likely to be an even better read than the already superb The Bow of
Jerry Delaney's review
Feb 12, 12
Read in February, 2012
Bow of Heaven is an exciting, informative historical novel of ancient Rome. Told by a Greek slave, Alexander, in his old age, it recounts the events that occurred since he was a student in Athens, captured by the conquering Romans. He eventually ends up as a highly-placed slave (right hand man, actually) in the house of Marcus Crassus, a noble politician and the richest man in Rome. Alexander ends up rich and has a great deal of power in the household. It's a good life in a lot of ways but that only highlights the central issue of his life. He is not free. He is haunted by a frustrating dilemma: The better he is at his job, the more he is rewarded. His rewards give him enough money to buy his freedom. But because he is so good at his job, Crassus will never allow him to buy his freedom. He will always be a slave.
Alexander makes several choices in this book (the first of a trilogy, by the way) that give us pause. Would we make the same choice? Was it the right one? He is a complex character - not conventionally brave, his value to Crassus is that he speaks his mind and defends positions contrary to those of his master when few slaves would do so. He takes actions (including one with Julius Caesar!) that few of us would have the nerve to do.
I haven't read a lot in the genre of historical fiction; I received this book from a Goodreads give away. I was open minded about it but not sure I'd like it. I had read a Robert Harris book and a couple by Mary Renault and found I was much more impressed by this one. I am not a historian so I can't judge the book on those terms. But it felt authentic to this reader and the characters were engaging and realistic. I am looking forward to the next installment.