A dynamic entry in the historical fiction-fantasy genre, this work touches on mythology, historical hints and a bit of supernatural mystery, all folded together in a delightful page-turning whole.
Taking up the legend of Alexander the Great’s parentage, Judith Tarr delves into the romantic fantasy surrounding Polyxena, brought up to be a priestess of the “Great Goddess” and born sister to the Queen of Epiros. It is set in the time of ancient Greece and Macedon, with the visions of gods and goddesses surrounding the tale of two lovers, bound for eternity and destined for prominence both in their time and in beyond. Judith Tarr has done here, for the beginning of the Alexander story, what she did in the William the Conqueror series, (Rite of Conquest, King’s Blood) letting the reader into the innermost family sanctum and giving us an intimate perspective on Alexander the Great’s antecedents.
Tarr takes her time recounting the story, letting us view the more generic mysteries and the specific ritual “Mystery” of the goddess cult. The Mother who had ruled the world for time beyond knowing is slowly dwindling in influence. Although Polyxena is destined merely to be a servant of the Mother, her own visions of her future tell her there is more to life than the sheltered upbringing she has. Her aunt Nikandra has deliberately kept from Polyxena some of the secrets of power and kept a tight leash on Polyxena from childhood. That is about to change. Judith Tarr has, by this early stage of the book, bound the reader to her side and opened up the mystical and mythical world of pagan goddess worship, witchcraft, royal manipulations and history.
One of the mild confusions in reading this book is that as the roles of each character change and develop, their names also change, so that keeping track of how the priestesses’ roles define their title, rather than birth-name, can be bewildering if you do not read with careful intent. Of course, it is not difficult to provide that intense concentration when reading Bring Down the Sun, for Tarr is an able and exciting writer. Polyxena segues into Myrtale, the name given to her by her husband, Phillip, the King of Macedonia (it means “crowned one”). We know her best in legend and myth as Olympias, mother of Alexander.
Some of the strands of the story provide additional insight to the historical perspective which is so cleverly woven throughout. Particularly fascinating is Myrtale’s connection with snakes, starting when she is Polyxena and working with the temple’s snakes, and continuing into her life as Queen of Macedon, with the Mother’s snakes keeping her company day and night. Although these snakes are highly honored by Myrtale and the priestesses of the goddess, the general view in the novel of snakes is lightly reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Parsel-tongue experiences within Hogwarts. There is certainly a long-standing trend in the use of snakes in mythology and fantasy-fiction; Tarr uses this interest of the reader provocatively, showing us this aspect of Myrtale to enhance her priestess background. Another bit of historical perspective is the polygamy aspect of the Macedon household that Polyxena enters. Expecting to be Queen in her own right, she is taken aback and even angered when she finds out that there is already an heir to the throne, and three other wives with whom to compete for Phillip’s time and attention. As an aspect of the pre-Christian pagan society, it is interesting to see how the wives’ characters and individual powers create a sub-plot to the novel.
As Myrtale grows in power and grace and takes her rightful place both in Phillip’s bed and in his heart, she learns more of her skills as a witch from her servant, the Thessalonian woman Erynna. In this time and place, Thessaly is known for its witchcraft and magic, and Erynna, with her own agenda, intends to encourage Myrtale to explore all the facets of her budding “witchness.” Although witchcraft is feared and demonized, it is also respected and sought-after, and Erynna knows that her mistress has talents and aptitude far beyond the ordinary. The greatest of these abilities is the skill to Bring Down the Sun, hence the title of the book. Slowly Myrtale comes to the realization that her aunt has deliberately hid these talents from her and tried to bind her to service of the Mother so that her gifts would not be explored or exploited. This discovery brings with it the severance of the family connection between Myrtale and the priestess. As the Queen’s skills grow and her sexuality and power over Phillip increase, the story takes on a vibrancy and character of its own.
The tale ends with Alexander’s birth, so it is likely that a sequel will be coming. Tarr seems intent on telling the history of this spectacular queen from an inimitable and stimulating viewpoint. Whether this fictionalized version of her life is woven with fact or myth, or both, it is a wonderful way to read about the forebears of one of the most powerful and respected men in world history.