Title: Cleopatra’s Moon
Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Length: 343 pages
My star rating: ★ ★
Warning: Excess snark.
I want to briefly preface this (long) review by saying that my first love was ancient Egypt. Back when I was six, seven, eight, I knew that was going to be an archeologist someday. I had a dozen books on ancient Egypt. My parents gave me an archeological “dig” kit with plastic Egyptian artifacts. I knew all about how the Great Pyramids were built and how bodies were mummified. I idolized Zahi Hawass (Egypt’s one-time Director of Antiquities). I was Cleopatra for Halloween more than once, and her I read her Royal Diaries novel innumerable times.
Eventually, I realized I was not the next Dr. Hawass—that I was more interested in other times and that I was more suited to be a historian than an archeologist—but I still have an abiding love for Egypt.
By the time Cleopatra VII ruled, Egypt’s days of greatness had long since passed. Their Pharaohs, Cleopatra’s dynasty, were Ptolemies—ethnically Greek and with the exception Cleopatra herself, generally ignorant of Egyptian culture. They could, however, still boast the great wealth and knowledge of their capital, Alexandria.
That’s the backdrop for Cleopatra’s Moon, whose narrator is the only daughter of Cleopatra VII and her husband Marc Antony, Cleopatra Selene. Moon skims over most of the greatness of Cleopatra’s reign, though Vicky Schecter is sure to describe as much of the spectacle and grandeur as possible while she can, and focuses on the years after the Roman emperor Augustus (here called “Octavianus”) defeated Selene’s parents. The young Egyptian princess, history tells us, then spent years as prisoner of the Rome.
Full disclosure: I never made it that far in the novel.
In fact, I didn’t even get to Cleopatra’s infamous suicide.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
Moon has gotten rave reviews from nearly everyone, and I really wanted to love it. I wanted to get swept back into Egypt again. But not even nostalgia could make me pretend this book was well-written or slog through it in its entirety.
This book was very well-researched, as one might expect, but as with so much historical fiction, the author goes to great lengths to show off just how much research she did (as if she’ll get a prize). So here’s my first major complaint: flowery language and purple prose do not equal good writing. As much as I appreciate adhering to the “show, don’t tell” rule, you can take it too far. And Shecter does.
I don’t need to know about Marc Antony’s muscles and curls every time he is in a scene, for instance (literally every time). As an author, you don’t have to throw every detailed sight, sound, and scent in a scene at your readers in order to immerse them in it. Yet this is how the novel begins:
But excitement and curiosity burbled in my blood as I fought to stay still, stealing side-glances whenever I could. I especially treasured my glimpses of Mother, Queen Cleopatra VII. She sat on a golden throne, looking resplendent as one of the Old Ones. Diamonds twinkled in a jungle of black braids on her ceremonial wig. She wore a diadem with three rearing snakes and a golden broad collar, shining with lapis lazuli, carnelian, and emeralds, over her golden, form-fitting pleated gown…
My brother had been called Alexandros Helios, for the sun, but I was Cleopatra Selene, the moon. I wore a flowing dress that reminded me of a liquid metal that the scientists at our Great Library described as “living silver.” A silver diadem of the moon sat atop my own thickly braided ceremonial wig. Even my sandals flashed silver.
Too much fluff, not enough substance. Rich, descriptive language is one thing, but with Shecter, it comes off as unnecessary filler.
There are a ridiculous number of further examples—so many that Shecter seems to exhaust her own vocabulary, often repeating words or indulging in three or four synonyms in the space of a paragraph or two.
Lady Chamion swept Mother’s robe off her shoulders as a servant rubbed Mother’s special scent—a heady mixture of lotus, rose, and other mysterious oils—into her shoulders and back. Another servant held a stirgil to scrape off the excess oil.
“Your turn,” Lady Charmion said in my ear, and I jumped. In silence, she removed my tunic and had a young maid begin rubbing my skin with Mother’s oil. I breathed deep, drinking in her unique scent.
Right, got it—Cleopatra’s “scent” [oil/perfume] is “special”…and also “unique.”
It happens again:
I commanded my facial muscles not to wince at the yeasty sharp taste. I knew that this specially brewed beer was from an ancient recipe, ancient and sacred as the Great Pyramids.
You don’t have to tell us the beer is “specially brewed” when you also tell us it’s “ancient [twice] and sacred”. Stylistic choice or not, it sounds rough and unedited.
Unfortunately, despite her obsessive attention to detail, Shecter also somehow manages to tell us a lot of things we’d be better of being shown—such as the barely-extant relationships between characters.
Not twenty pages after randomly choosing a companion from a large group young women and describing how she often bickered with the chosen girl, Euginia, Selene throws a tantrum when Euginia must flee the city with her family for their own safety:
“But you have been consecrated to me!” I cried. “You cannot leave!” …
“What if…what if I commanded you to stay?” I asked, lifting my chin. “I can do that!”
Euginia’s large eyes filled with tears. …
“I do not want you to go,” I said, my voice dropping almost to a whisper.
“I do not want to leave, either,” Euginia said. “But…but when this is all over, when the queen returns triumphant, I will rejoin you as your lady. Then, by the Laws of Isis and Horus, we will never be parted again. That is a promise.”
“I will hold you to it, sister,” I said through a tight throat. And so the process of losing everyone I ever loved began.
A hundred pages in, after you see Selene and Euginia bond, this scene might have been touching. Here, it’s melodramatic and empty. We know Selene sees Euginia as a “sister” because…she says so?
And for all her purple prose elsewhere in the book, Shecter skims over the “long days of waiting” between Antony’s suicide and the royal children’s reunion with their mother in less than a page. Instead of describing those “long days” stuck inside, bored and anxious, Selene just tells us that she felt lonely and bonded with her little brother.
(Speaking of her baby brother Ptolemy Philadelphos, every time Selene mentions him, she reminds us that he looks just like their father with his curly hair and “barrel-chested body of a bull.” Even at two. …what? And if your toddler is really barrel-chested, you might need to consult a doctor.)
She’s also frequently contradicting herself. At seven, she describes how “Ptolly had already given in to sleep… His head lolled on my shoulder. Nafre, Ptolly’s nurse, bent over him to pick him up…but Ptolly clung to my arm. … ‘Stay!’ he whined, barely opening his eyes. ‘Stay with Klee-Klee!’”
But at eleven, she says, “Ptolly, as usual, ignored me.”
And then, suddenly, they’ve bonded again. Sure, kids change as they grow up, but going from him clinging to “Klee-Klee” to him ignoring her “as usual” without anything in between is just poor character development. Either Selene’s family is important enough to her to describe and define their relationships, or they aren’t. Pick one.
The dialogue is also painfully stilted. At five or six, despite still acting like a toddler, Ptolly speaks like a young adult. Almost none of the dialogue from any of the characters comes off as natural. As he’s dying, Antony calls for Selene’s twin, Alexandros Helios, saying: “Come here, my son, the sun.” I winced.
The characters are flat, uninteresting, and mostly unlikeable, including Selene herself (whose voice is static and unchanging throughout the novel).
Why does Selene worship her parents when her father is perpetually drunk and usually ignores or overlooks her and when her mother is downright nasty? I can think of a dozen reasons why Selene would admire the historical Cleopatra—and I understand that ideas about childhood and of parenting was different in ancient times—but here she is cold, unloving, and rather psychotic. She’s quick to criticize her only daughter and even to lash out.
Selene almost drinks untasted wine and:
I heard a crack and felt a stinging pain on my cheek and jaw. I yelped in surprise as the dark liquid arced out of my chalice and I fell over. What had happened?
The room grew quiet. Mother stood over me, and the rage on her face made my blood run cold. “You stupid girl,” she hissed. “Do you not know better than to take a cup of untasted wine?”
Mother had slapped me…
And a stressed Cleopatra then causes a scene later when her cat claws her leg:
Mother jumped out of her chair in a rage. “You wicked beast!” she hissed. “How dare you!” she took one of the still-rolled scrolls on her desk and threw it with all her might into the other room. … She cursed wildly under her breath as she checked her now-bleeding ankle. … She must have felt me watching her because she turned to me, eyes blazing.
“You come in here and rile that creature up with your ridiculous games! This is your fault. I need you to leave now!”
“But I did not do anything. I—”
“Go! Take that odious feather with you and GET OUT!”
Sorry, but taking your anger and fear out on your ten-year-old daughter is abusive. Are we not supposed to sympathize with the narrator’s beloved mother or what?
Yet after all that, Selene—who’s always crying or throwing fits herself—insists that “I am my mother’s daughter. I will control my emotions.” Even though her mother apparently can’t.
It’s funny, because in The Heretic’s Daughter, the young narrator had a strained relationship with her seemingly-cold mother, but eventually realized how much her mother loved her and was willing to sacrifice for her. You could understand why she looked up to her mother, why she was proud to declare, “I am my mother’s daughter!” But here, Selene hero-worships a woman who displays few attractive qualities and rarely shows affection towards her children. It’s disconcerting to say the least.
To top it all off, Shecter’s writing also suffers from her assumption that her readers are rather stupid. Selene must narrate everything, every turn of the head or movement of the eyes, every thought passing through her (rather dim) head. Selene is constantly asking herself questions—in nearly every paragraph. It bogs the book down. She also uses the same descriptions a dozen times—for characters, scents, places, etc.—and repeatedly reminds readers that, for example, “Pharos” is also “the Lighthouse.”
“My family and all of Alexandria turned inward,” Selene says, and then just two paragraphs later: “My family—and all of Alexandria—embraced our young king’s ascension to manhood…”
Hey, lady, YA readers don’t all have the memories of goldfish!
This is the sort of book I could pick apart forever, but I’ll end with one last critique. Shecter laces her first-century-B.C. narrative with strangely modern attitudes—sadly not uncommon in historical fiction, either. Selene is a budding little feminist with neo-Pagan ideas about the importance of a Goddess (disclaimer: I understand that the Isis cult was a powerful one, especially to Selene’s mother, but they were still polytheists—and Isis had an important consort god, too).
When she and her brother visit a (totally stereotypical) Jewish rabbi and learn the Jewish story of creation, Selene demands to know:
“But the bearing of life is the province of women,” I said. “What does a male god know of these things?” …
The rabbi launched into the Hebrew story about the first man and woman. … Their god was very angry [that they had eaten the forbidden fruit] and the man blamed the woman.
“But if both the man and the woman at the fruit, why does the woman get all the blame?” I interrupted…
“Because she is weaker and tempted the man, he said, seemingly surprised at the question. “Therefore, she is more evil.”
This smacks of original sin, which is odd since that’s more a Christian doctrine than it is a Jewish one, but Shecter then goes on to simplify the Jewish creation story even further, leaving out important details (such as God’s explicit instructions to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge) and letting the indignant nine-year-old Selene think she has the upper hand. She even demands to know why the Messiah couldn’t be a woman.
…[M]y experience at the Jewish temple opened my eyes to the fact that most men thought women inferior. …I began paying more attention, and I grew confused by what I saw. Mother had no women in her court of advisers. Few petitioners were women. Occasionally, we saw a female scholar at the Great Library, but not often. And certainly, no women ambassadors visited the queen. What did it mean? And how had I not noticed it before? …
“Why do men blame everything on women?” I blurted.
Gee, I love it when pre-pubescent girls living in ancient Egypt/Rome think and speak exactly like third-wave feminists. (Is the fact that Selene sees “great men prostate themselves at [her mother’s] feet” and the fact that she, as a royal woman and future queen, lives in extreme wealth and privilege not enough for her?)
Yes, especially by our standards, society in first-century B.C. Egypt was sexist. There was no gender equality, but I rather doubt that many people living under the shadow of the Roman Empire and constantly under threat of incurable diseases, famine/starvation, crippling poverty, etc., were striving for it, either.
And thankfully, at some point Pandora—the Greek Eve, if you will—is brought up, though Selene, being as Greek as she is Egyptian, should have remembered that from the beginning.
Selene’s double standards show through when she describes Octavian/Augustus as a “short” and “slight,” a “boy-man.” She declares that “there was nothing frightening about this little man.”
Whatever your opinions on Augustus, that seems like a pretty ugly about-face to me—Wah, men blame women for everything when women are just curious! But if a man is short and slender rather than muscular and bull-like, he’s a loser, and that’s totally acceptable. If you’re going to include anachronistic “girl power” theme, fine. But at least the “wimpy boys are losers” idea out—especially if you want your heroine to be admirable.
All in all, Cleopatra’s Moon is a meticulously-researched but poorly-executed novel with one-dimensional, unsympathetic characters, strange pacing, and florid, awkward writing.
It wasn’t worth finishing. All the four- and five-star reviews totally baffle me.
I’d suggest reading Kristiana Gregory’s Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile instead.