Title: Cleopatra’s Shadows
Author: Emily Holleman
Length: 342 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Eight-year-old Arsinoe is the youngest daughter of Ptolemy XII of Egypt. She lives a charmed life in her father’s beautiful seaside palace until he and her sister Cleopatra set sail for parts unknown early one morning. Her eldest sister Berenice then turns Arsione’s world on its head. She seizes power and names herself the rightful queen. Abandoned by her parents and playmates alike and surrounded by enemies, young Arsinoe must try to keep herself alive in her sister’s court. Berenice, meanwhile, struggles to prove herself worthy of the throne even as she defends her kingdom and her dynasty from the ever-growing might of Rome.
I stumbled across this book in the library and decided to take a chance. Turns out, I enjoyed it immensely.
Emily Holleman has talent. This is her debut novel, yet she’s already come close to mastering the art of historical fiction. She provides readers with enough details to transport them to another time and place while not bogging down the narrative with too many. Ptolemaic Alexandria under her pen comes alive. Here are both the elegant grandeur of the Grecian palace and its court as well as the everyday, sometimes crude, hustle and bustle of the city streets:
Poseidon’s winds beat against her face, teasing strands from the golden clasps of her diadem and whipping them across her cheeks. Cold idled in the air despite the bright afternoon sun, and Berenice wrapped her woolen mantel more tightly around her shoulders. She stepped lightly over the thick grass. All around her, acacia trees sprang up, their stalks spindling into the blue until their branches burst forth in a spurt of olive. (101)
She also deftly avoids common pitfalls like info-dumping, weaving background and historical context into the story throughout.
It was the two main characters, the famous Cleopatra’s sisters, that made the novel, though. Their alternating POV chapters give readers two unique perspectives on the same events. Berenice is the grown daughter of her father’s first wife. She feels that Cleopatra “stole” both the king’s love and her birthright–now she, not Berenice, is his heir. The strong-willed Berenice fights to prove herself capable and wise, which isn’t difficult considering that her father is openly mocked for his drunkenness and excesses. Despite knowing that her reign is doomed to be brief, I found myself rooting for Berenice as she traveled to Thebes and sought to repair the damage done by her father.
Arsinoe, meanwhile, idolizes Cleopatra, the only member of her immediate family who seems to love her. Over the course of the novel, she transforms from a frightened and lonely child into a spunky and determined girl forced to grow up too soon. I ached for her as she learns one hard lesson after another: that neither of her parents value her enough to save her from Berenice’s coup, that even the people she loves best don’t keep their promises, and so on. Despite having a child’s restless energy and wandering attention span, she is also bright and well aware aware that her studies are important because “education ma[kes] queens.”
Both sisters feel very real and very authentic. They inhabit the cutthroat world that existed on the eve of the Roman Empire, daughters of a dynasty so proud of its heritage that brothers and uncles married their sisters and nieces for more than two hundred years. (At one point, Arsinoe’s tutor has to explain to her that incest is a taboo that most people shun.) Yet while Arsinoe at once wins readers’ sympathy as a helpless little girl, it is the fierce Berenice who steals the show as the novel progresses.
Berenice is ambitious, complex and troubled; she’s haunted by her difficult childhood and the lessons her bitter, disenfranchised mother drilled into her (“Loveliness is not the business of queens,” “never show them you are soft,” and so on). She behaves ruthlessly at times, recklessly at others, but in the end proud, regal Berenice is undone by her desire to be loved.
Two fascinating and sympathetic heroines, beautifully descriptive prose, and a gripping tale of political intrigue combine to make Ms. Holleman’s debut truly great. She says there will be at least one more book about Arsinoe. I, for one, can hardly wait.
A note on the historical accuracy: No one really knows who the mother(s) of Ptolemy XII’s children was/were. Holleman portrays the four youngest–Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and their brothers–as full siblings. Their mother is called only “the Concubine.” Berenice she makes the daughter of Cleopatra V (here referred to by her second name, Tryphaena), the only known wife of Ptolemy XII. Some historians argue that all five children shared the same mother (presumed to be Cleopatra Tryphaena); others name Arsinoe as the half-sister. However, there are also historians who argue that Tryphaena bore only Berenice, as is the case here. I felt that the scenario worked quite well–it gave Berenice’s coup a real motive and instilled her with a sense of legitimacy–so I was happy to go along with it for the sake of the story.