Anyone who is already familiar with Christian Cameron's body of work knows that he is a very gifted writer.
But in spite of Cameron's ability to craft vibrant characters, his wide and working knowledge of the material that frames his novels, and his ability to fabricate most convincingly what lies unspoken between the pages of recorded history – albeit with a tone and terminology often too modern and anachronistic for my own tastes – God of War is not one of Cameron's best works.
The reasons for this are twofold. The first is that by trying to capture impressions of Alexander at different stages of his life, Cameron's depiction is not cohesive. Alexander is never a real figure in the book. Instead, he is presented – I am convinced unintentionally – as a series of highly disparate caricatures. He is by turns a boy, a man, a sociopath, a would-be god and an irredeemable monster. All or none of which may be entirely accurate depictions, but there is no depth behind these renderings.
Paradoxically, it is Ptolemy, the book's narrator, who is lent the virtue of depth in Cameron's novel. And that is no bad thing, for the book is much more interesting as Ptolemy's novel than as Alexander's, perhaps because there is so much less to work from historically when dealing with Ptolemy, and Cameron fills in the gaps of his life in a most human and appealing fashion.
But the excellent depiction of Cameron's largely fictionalized Ptolemy does not obviate the second major problem with God of War. Cameron is writing to his dedicated audience: historical enthusiasts and military re-enacters, readers beloved of military strategy and those with a deep-seated fondness for the minutiae of history's unfolding. And he has used that reader base to give himself licence to turn what should have been a 400-page book into a military chronicle twice that length.
Cameron had, with God of War, an opportunity to step into the gap left by Robert Graves's passing, to write a chronicle to rival I, Claudius. He is certainly capable of it. But like Alexander, Cameron has fallen in love with the contemplation of war. And in so doing he has limited his audience severely. God of War may be a stunning success with Cameron's many fans, but Cameron has missed the opportunity to capture a wider audience, and that is indeed a shame.
Still, despite its deficiencies, Cameron's artistry and craftsmanship offer much to recommend. God of War is grand in scope, which ought to work for it as well. But in spending too much time focused on war as the epitome of the classical world – a common and persistent posture among Western historians of the Greek and Roman Empires and the surrounding civilizations – God of War fails to give us a human portrait of Alexander. The most human elements in the novel come via Ptolemy, whose novel this really is.
Michael Matheson is a Toronto writer, editor, reviewer and some-time lecturer.
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