Judith French calls her latest novel “the book of her heart,” a sentiment that shows through in every page. While Dorchester is marketing this tale as historical romance, The Conqueror is more historical fiction than a traditional historical romance. The strong romantic element – French brings Alexander the Great and his beloved Roxane to wonderful life here – is combined with well-researched political history and military action sure to please those who enjoy epic stories.
Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes and Princess of Bactria and Sogdiana, has seen her homeland fall to Alexander’s army after two years of warfare. Upon meeting Roxane, Alexander decides that marriage to her would be the perfect way to command the loyalty of her people. Against her wishes, Roxane enters a political alliance that gradually turns into something quite passionate. A strong figure in her own right, Roxane finds herself attracted to her new husband, even as she resents his conquest of her home.
Alexander falls in love with his princess and takes her on his campaigns into India. Though his advisors mistrust Roxane for the most part, Alexander takes her into his heart and, as he begins to realize how well-trained and educated she is, he also learns to confide in her and (somewhat reluctantly) to let her into the business of warfare. This is a role that would normally have been unheard of for women of that time, but French manages this part of the story quite well and makes Roxane’s role seem believable.
For her part, though Roxane is drawn to Alexander, she has much trouble overcoming her own prejudices against his culture. She tries to be a loyal wife to Alexander, but she simply cannot make herself like his inner circle or the world from which he comes. The clash of cultures and that of two strong personalities leads to many arguments between the two, and they spend almost as much time at odds as they do united. These clashes, combined with the many battle scenes, make for an exciting novel.
This depiction of Roxane, however, was the one element that marred the story. It is obvious early on that Alexander loves her and he often goes out of his way to make her happy. As the princess of a conquered nation, her initial resentment is credible, but the intensity of her grudge and her “you’re wonderful and I burn for you, no, you’re a nasty Greek” attitude toward Alexander is hard to accept in the face of his obvious love for her and his favorable treatment of her family and people. While I can’t help but admire her strength and basic intelligence, there is at times a coldness to her that makes her hard to like. The author attempts to soften Roxane’s attitude near the end of the novel, but it is too late to completely save her.
Alexander and his inner circle, though, are wonderfully drawn. Though Alexander is smart and something of a larger-than-life hero, he is also likable enough that one can see why he would have commanded great loyalty. His inner circle of advisors (primarily Hephastion, Perdiccas, and Ptolemy) are also vividly drawn. Just as important, French does an excellent job of evoking the world these characters inhabit: The landscapes are rugged and the dangerous animals (and people) immediate and real.
As anyone familiar with ancient history knows, the lives of people of this time were not those of most conventional romance characters. The luxury of extensive time spent together, a HEA, and even monogamy were extremely rare. Even though the hero and heroine of this novel are no exception to that rule, their story is extremely compelling and the book a difficult one to put down. The Conqueror is quite different from other fictional depictions of Alexander, but his love and passsion for Roxane and the great adventures they share both shine through admirably in French’s rendering.