Forget, if you can, all of the stories that you've read or seen about the fabled Queen of the Nile, Cleopatra, the last Pharaoh of Egypt. Try if you can, not to see her as a voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor or enchanting Vivien Leigh or as some grand beauty. She's not in these pages. Not at all.
Instead, Colleen McCullough's final epic in her multivolume tale of the end of the Roman Republic takes an entirely new spin on the story. Nor does she forget the rest of the vivid cast that populate the story, from Octavian -- now calling himself Caesar -- and his sister, Octavia, and Mark Antony, Julius Caesar's former friend and now determined to make himself just as great as slain dictator. But there are plenty of minor players as well, and all of them are given a voice in this sprawling novel that travels from Rome to Egypt, the mountains of Armenia and as far as Parthia in the East.
The novel opens as Antony is summoning the various client kings of the East to Ephesus, gathering up armies to invade the kingdom of the Parthians to the East. Many of them are there to try and negotiate the survival of their own kingdoms, others such as Herod of Judea are wanting to have a favor or throne granted to them. In far off Alexandria, Queen Cleopatra is surveying the remains of the Roman world after the assassination of Julius Caesar, and wondering how she's going to secure her beloved son's inheritance -- when a summons arrives from Antony to go to him at Ephesus...
So begins a war of wills and manipulation by one of the more famous romantic couples in history. McCullough creates some of the most unusual characters that I've come across in a long time, and ones that forced me to fling aside all of my preconcieved notions of this often told story. And the other characters in this drama, especially Octavian and his family, are just as compelling.
Cleopatra here is a woman that is coldly calculating, determined to see her son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, the ruler of Rome, with herself right beside him. At first, Antony is just a Roman to be used, but the tables are neatly turned when a sexual passion between the two ignites, and the stakes are raised in the game.
In Rome, Octavian has managed to take over the Senate, but his hold on Rome is still not secure. There's the surviving son of Pompey who has taken over the granaries of Sicily, and he doesn't quite have the funds to keep the population happy either. His companion and best friend, Marcus Agrippa, is able to plot and plan right beside him, and while giving Antony the eastern half of the Roman empire has bought them some time, it might not be enough.
There is Octavia, beloved of the Roman people, and utterly devoted to her children. While she is the person who has managed to have a close relationship with her brother, she also hungers for a husband of her own -- and has been harbouring a deep yearning for Antony, even if he hardly gives her a second glance. And her brother, who scarcely sees the women that he marries -- and discards -- a moment's thought, finds himself meeting someone during a campaign that will change his life, and history.
That someeone is Livia Drusilla, granddaughter of the Marcus Livius Drusus from the earlier books of the series. She has a sharp sense of cunning, and a great deal of beauty, but has also endured a brutal marriage, and that lesson has taught her perserverence and patience.
But the biggest surprise for me was Caesarion. Out of all of the players in this story, he is the one with the most surprises and greatest potential of all of them. Very little has been written about this young man, and it was so refreshing to see an author include him, and not mess it up -- I really don't want to give much more of this away, as it is one of the best parts of the story.
There are battles, conspiracies, romance, conniving, and some outrageous puns, all dished up in McCullough's style. This novel fits in very neatly with the rest of the series, and it's a grand, eye-opening adventure for the reader. While some of the action in the book is rather compressed -- most of the battles, including that of Actium towards the end -- the psychological base and giving a new spin on history is top notch.
This is what I really like about this series by McCullough. It's subtle, engaging and while she's not adverse about putting a bit of creativity in the story, she also knows her facts. It's here that makes her storytelling so good -- she creates characters that the reader can feel deeply about, and while you might not like them personally, they are compelling. Along the way, there's plenty of details about daily life, the way that the ancients looked at the world around them, and some deeply moving prose.
Indeed, one of scenes of the book is so heartbreaking that I broke down in tears. I don't do that very often and I had to set the book down and walk away for a moment before continuing to read.
For those who have managed to stay with the series from the begining, this one provides an adequate tying up of a lot of the loose strings from the previous work, The October Horse. While this book, as with all of the others, can stand well on its own, it really does help to know some of the previous action of the story. If the reader is already fond of novels set in Ancient Rome, this is simply one of the best.
Once again, McCullough provides drawings of the major players, maps and a glossary to cover various terms and places and people to help the unfamiliar reader with this new world. Her research is rock-solid, and it's one of the best parts of the book. I felt that I was walking right beside these people, getting to observe their world.
A wonderful conclusion to the series, and worth the effort that it takes to get through it.
Five stars, and highly recommended, as are all of the Masters of Rome series.
The Masters of Rome:
The First Man in Rome
The Grass Crown
Fortune's Favorites -- George Chabot's review
Caesar: Let the Dice Fly -- George Chabot's review.
The October Horse
Antony and Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra
2007; Simon and Schuster
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