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Pharaoh    by Karen Essex order for
by Karen Essex
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Warner, 2002 (2002)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Pharaoh is a sequel to the author's stunning debut novel Kleopatra, which portrayed a formidably intelligent young princess growing up and reaching for power, while surrounded by a maze of dynastic treachery. She learned from her father to lead their people down the thorny (and unpopular) path of conciliation with Rome, a continuing policy in this second novel, in which she holds the crown and scepter of the Two Lands. Indeed, Kleopatra, a descendant of the Macedonian world conqueror Alexander, is very conscious of her ancestry and the pivotal position of her country, in wealth, culture and geography. The book opens on her mythic first encounter with Julius Caesar, whom she charms by asking about his enjoyment of her city; 'Are we occupying you as satisfactorily as you occupy us?'

Kleopatra has reluctantly put aside her first love, and continues to take the advice of her eunuch advisor Hephaestion 'In matters of state, let your blood run cold.' She allies herself, both in council and in the bedroom, with the older, coldly intelligent Caesar, who becomes to some extent a mentor in politics. When Kleopatra bears Caesar's child, she invests in small Caesarion the dream of a new Alexandrian empire, combining the best of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and incorporating Alexander's policies of a just rule for conquered states. Of course, even a suspicion of such an ambition is highly unpopular in Rome, as is Kleopatra herself, the distrust deliberately fed by her enemies, especially her siblings. She becomes 'weary of the bitter stew of fascination, suspicion and disdain' to which the Romans subject her when she visits. After Caesar's assassination, the dream continues with Antony as a new partner, one able to arouse Kleopatra's passions as well as her ambitions.

In some ways, I found the vibrant personality of the first book distanced somewhat by the constraints of historical facts (and perhaps by motherhood) in this one. That young Kleopatra is most visible when with friends from her childhood like Hammonius. And of course, we all know the ending of her story. But Karen Essex leads us towards it masterfully, using flashbacks from a time close to the end, when Antony despairs and Kleopatra searches for alternatives to save her country and her children from a vindictive adversary, Caesar's heir Octavian. As the author herself says, Octavian is depicted as a greater villain than may have been the truth, but this balances Kleopatra's bad press through history and, after all, it is her story and so should be told from her perspective, not from his.

The author gives us a protagonist very unlike the languorous portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor. Though many of her settings are even more sumptuous than the movie Cleopatra, this 'Queen of Kings', Kleopatra, is a brilliant and farsighted leader of her people, whose vision of empire fails through bad fortune, and perhaps because she fails at the end to take Hephaestion's advice, 'let your blood run cold'. The bookjacket mentions a screenplay under development; exciting news. This could become a movie that adds to the gorgeous and exotic surroundings of the previous one much more depth in character, geopolitics and plot. I wonder what Ms. Essex will take on next ... Alexander perhaps?

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