When reading a book on true history, I find that the notes sections are often what makes the overall quality of the work shine through. If I feel compelled to read through the notes, this tells me a few important things. It usually means that the work is well researched, and allows the notes to present a clear basis for the author’s statements, as well as alternative interpretations of the evidence. Well written notes give enough context that I don’t feel the need to annoyingly flip back and forth between sections. Most importantly, if I’m spending time reading through the notes, it means I didn’t want the story to end.
The best non-fiction works have a strong narrative without sacrificing academic rigour. My favourite work of this kind, Batavia’s Graveyard, by Mike Dash, is an excellent example of a book I did not want to put down, even while reading the notes. Ghost on the Throne, by James Romm, also passes this test and is easily the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year.
This is the story of how Alexander the Great’s followers tore up his empire through greed, treachery and old hatreds. If it invokes Game of Thrones, that’s no accident. This is how a Game of Thrones plays out in real life. While not mentioned by George R. R. Martin as an inspiration for his Song of Ice and Fire, the parallels are striking. Devastating betrayals, epic battles, brutal child killings, incest. There is even a compelling underdog who plays the game brilliantly but by accident of birth never gets the respect or chance he deserves.
Romm’s prose is excellent, and he does well to keep the reader firmly aware of time and place, an especially tricky job given how complex the interactions are. While some knowledge of ancient history would be helpful, I never got the sense that this story would go over the head of most readers. The narrative is very tightly written, and plays out like a political thriller mixed with Greek tragedy, a genuine page turner.
There are some odd idiosyncrasies in the text, such as constantly adding epithets such as “old man” and “little” when describing a couple of characters. As far as I can tell, these have no historical basis and may simply be to reinforce the uniqueness of a couple of key characters in the reader’s mind amid a whole flood of ancient Greek names. Also, there is the amusing use of the word “twit”.
The story is bookended by sections detailing the discovery in Macedonia of the tombs of Alexander the Great’s regal relations, which serve well to give the story its beginning and ending, but is also a conceit that becomes limiting. By tying the story so tightly to the royal family, Romm concludes his work only halfway through a civil war that would play out for another couple of decades and only brushes on it in the Epilogue. A more extensive discussion of the continuing civil war and how it finally concluded would have been good. Perhaps a sequel would be in order (yes please!)
This is an excellent book, and would be a great way to introduce people to historical writing, but anyone who enjoys epic tales will love this as well.
My rating: ★★★★½