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Kleopatra    by Karen Essex order for
by Karen Essex
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is a stunning debut novel, the first volume of two set in the ancient world of Caesar's Rome and Kleopatra's Egypt. I have not enjoyed a historical novel of this era as much since reading works by Mary Renault like The King Must Die and Bull from the Sea. In fact, Renault also mentioned Kleopatra's ancestor Ptolemy in her stories of Alexander the Great, The Persian Boy and Fire from Heaven. As the spelling of the name suggests, Kleopatra is the tale of a Greek monarch in Egypt, an emphasis not usually given in popularized versions of her story.

This tale begins with the death of the mother of the strong-willed and precocious three year-old princess, who is a linguistic prodigy and her father Auletes' 'small piece of joy'. Kleopatra in turn loves her father deeply. While not blind to his faults, she recognizes and is grateful for his acumen in walking the razor edge between Rome, which he placates with tribute, and the Alexandrians, with whom the Ptolemies have always had an uneasy relationship ... 'Whenever the Ptolemies get into trouble with the people, they have themselves deified. It's a time-honoured tradition'.

Kleopatra grows up her father's favorite and shares his Roman exile after his stepdaughter / wife and his elder daughter seize the throne. Auletes and Kleopatra meet Cato, stay at Pompey's villa, and are shocked by their hosts' general crudeness, and in particular Roman eating habits. The author does an excellent job of sketching into her canvas a background of the development of politics and major players in surrounding countries. In particular she portrays the rise to power of Julius Caesar and the fall (and betrayal at Egyptian hands) of Pompey. She shows us Kleopatra's first brief meeting with Marcus Antonius and ends the volume with the historic encounter with Caesar.

This first volume takes its heroine through her childhood and coming of age to the death of her father and her inheritance (like a young Victoria) of the crown and scepter of the Two Lands. This is intended to be a joint rule with her young brother through his Regency Council, but they are soon at odds. During this time, the queen discovers the real Egypt on a journey down the Nile to Amon-Ra ... 'Clusters of palm trees with fronds like worn-out combs swayed softly against a pearl-blue sky. Papyrus, brown and dry as beavers' tails, choked the shoreline.' She is the first Greek monarch to speak the local language and is hailed as 'King Kleopatra, Daughter of Isis, Daughter of Ra.' This is when she finds out that there is indeed a precedent in Egypt for its King and sole ruler to be a woman.

Civil war follows, only resolved by the coming of Caesar after his defeat of Pompey. Despite her love for her cousin Archimedes, Kleopatra does what is needed, following the advice of her eunuch advisor Hephaestion 'In matters of state, let your blood run cold.' As the first volume ends, Kleopatra assesses her resources ... 'She had the treasures of her ancestors, the riches of Egypt, the bloom of youth, and the knowledge that the Achilles' heel of a man was not necessarily in his foot.' This is not the trite, glamorous Cleopatra that we are used to, but a formidably intelligent young woman, ready to do what is needed to protect her realm from annexation.

In Kleopatra, Essex has given us an engaging heroine, a young princess who leads her people down the thorny path of conciliation of Rome, while she herself picks a way through a maze of dynastic treachery. It's an excellent read and I anxiously await the second volume Pharaoh, planned for August, 2002.

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