Recent years have seen the release of not just one but three novels about the daughter of the last pharaoh of Egypt, Queen Cleopatra. The first one, Cleopatra's Daughter, by Michelle Moran, was to me, pretty bad. It badly mangled Roman custom and history of the time, and turned what could have been a pretty interesting story into a pile of steaming excrement. There's another one, Cleopatra's Moon, by Vicky Alvear Shecter that I haven't tried yet but I am not enthused about. And to be honest, I viewed this new attempt by a new author with the same skeptical eye.
The novel opens with Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, going with her brothers to a final visit to her mother, who has locked herself into her own tomb. The Egyptian city of Alexandria has been overrun by the Romans under Augustus and Queen Cleopatra is under no illusions about her forthcoming fate at the conqueror’s hands. In Selene's hands is a basket of figs, a basket that shifts ominously in her grasp. Selene dreads what is coming, but also knows she can't stop it.
Of course, we know what's in the basket, and what happens next -- Cleopatra commits suicide by snake and her three surviving children -- the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and the younger Ptolemy Philadelphius are taken to Rome as captives and marched in Octavian's triumphal parade as prisoners. In a showy scene, Selene pleads for her own life and that of her brothers, which Octavian grants, and then proceeds to turn them over to his sister Octavia to raise and transform into good little Romans.
Surrounded by Octavian's family -- his wife, the evil-tongued Livia as well as an assortment of half-brothers and sisters by her father's various Roman wives -- Selene learns the hard way that the best way to survive is not to attract too much attention to herself. But that's rather difficult as both she and her twin are regarded as the literal 'Divine' twins by the followers of the Egyptian goddess Isis, but bloody hieroglyphs appear on her arms and hands, messages that Selene reads and interpets as messages from the goddess herself.
All of this, quite naturally, is viewed as witchery by the Romans, who are none too pleased by it. Even a fellow captive, Prince Juba of Mauretania, who happens to be their tutor as well, thinks that Selene is somehow behind all of it. Things finally come to a crisis when Alexander Helios disappears and Rome begins to burn...
To be honest, I didn't think much of this one. While it's not so unbelievable as Moran's novel, the element of hieroglyphic stigmata and "Isiac" religion turned this into a laughable venture. One-note characters also made this a bore to wade through, without the subtlety and scope of either Colleen McCullogh's or Robert Harris' novels about ancient Rome.
All of the Romans are very very bad evil people, from Augustus/Octavian on down to the children. And of course, the Egyptians and followers of Isis -- here called Isiacs -- are good, upright, noble people who are being bitterly oppressed. Indeed, one of the big complaints that I have with this one is that no one really ever grows or changes in this one. The attitudes are just the same at the end as they were at the begining, and it does get tiresome after a while. One character that was particularly annoying to me was Augustus, constantly braying on in a very misogynistic way, and yes while he was very hard on Roman women when they were adultresses, he was also a hypocrite in that he viewed all women as fair prey for his sexual adventures. Livia is a continually nasty creature, unable to say anything good about anyone. Julia, Augustus' only child, is a flitterwit, mooning after unsuitable men, and unable to hold a thought in her head for more than a moment. Juba, the only character in the novel who seems to have any sort of depth to him is more of a 'frenemy' than anything else.
If some of this sounds familiar to anyone, the author does admit in the introduction that one of her sources was Robert Graves, who himself wasn't shy about letting his own misogyny show in his two Roman novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God. Another source that she uses is E. Wallis Budge, a fairly decent Egyptologist from the early nineteenth century. However, there have been more recent texts about the Egyptian religion published, and it was here that I took my greatest umbrage at. Ms. Dray pretty much focuses everything on the tale of Isis, with Osiris and Horus being minor players, and makes the Egyptian goddess more of a Marian figure than what she was in the Egyptian mythos. Scarcely any other Egyptian gods are mentioned, especially Ma'at, that very unique concept of Egyptian religion, which I found to be very odd. Even the funerary customs get weird with people wearing masks and the like. While I am glad that the author used actual texts, it just didn't feel right, and there was a part of my brain that just didn't buy it.
At best I can call this one a rather unsavoury historical fantasy and leave it at that. I think I will stay with the works of Pauline Gedge when I need a good Egyptian based novel, who at least can create a spooky story without making it seem like teenage fantasy.
Along with the narrative, there is a collection of reader's guides tucked in at the end of the novel.
To confound matters even further, there is a sequel to be released in October 2011, Song of the Nile. I'm still undecided if I am going to bother with it or not.
Two stars overall, and not worth the effort if you know any of the real history of the Roman Empire.
Once again, many thanks to the Books CL Pestyside for putting this book into the database!
Lily of the Nile
2011; Berkeley Trade Paperback
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