Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cleopatra's Daughter review

Reading historical novels is like going to a Hollywood premiere.

There is a cast of thousands, but only a few people eat up the scenery. They're called stars.

In many historical novels, you already know the star, and you probably already love/hate her/him. You know the story. The ending is rarely in doubt, although you often find yourself hoping against hope things will turn out better than you know they did. Take Cleopatra, for example. I always want her not to end up in that mausoleum with Antony dying on the floor, the asp in the basket, and Octavian at the door. I want it, but the end never changes, no matter how much I hope.

Then, there are some novels about the supporting actors, the  people who don't spend much time in history's klieg lights. Hitler's niece, the woman who read to Marie Antoinette,  the fictional daughter of Elizabeth I, or Charlemagne's wastrel son.  Just as Wolf Hall offered Cromwell's very welcome and fresh perspective on the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga, books told from the POV of the supporting actors can reignite our passion for familiar stories.

Enter Cleopatra Selene, daughter and only child of THE Cleopatra and Mark Antony  to survive into adulthood, captive and ward of Augustus Caesar, and finally Queen in her own right. Selene mingled with some major stars who have fascinated us for centuries and became a star in her own right in the following novels:

I'm a BIG Michelle Moran fan. I loved her previous novels about Nefertiti and Nefertari. I also really liked her novel about the French Revolution told through the eyes of Madam Tussuad. Which is to say, I was pre-disposed to like Cleopatra's Daughter.

I liked it. I'm glad I read it. I just didn't love this novel. Given the subject matter, I wanted it to grab me by the heart, and it didn't.

The books opens strongly with Cleopatra's children playing dice and waiting for news about the outcome of their father's final battle with Octavian (Augustus). The ominous overtones of the family gathering quickly disintegrate into chaos in the palace with faithful servants fleeing, Mark Antony dying, Cleopatra committing suicide and abandoning her children to their fate, and the arrival of Octavian who may or may not kill Selene and her two brothers. Tension. Excitement. Life changing drama. After that scene, I almost felt the tension and drama melting away.

What didn't bother me: Numerous reviews talk about a lack of historical accuracy. I found the story close enough for a work of fiction. The intricacies of an ancient society are hard to convey to a modern audience. Yes, patrician women took their clan names; so Mark Antony's two daughters were literally Antonia Major and Antonia Minor. I'm OK with nicknames, which they probably had. No, women probably didn't become architects in Rome (as Selene does); but she had an indisputable impact on the architecture of Mauretania when she became its Queen. So I'll let that slide, because she might have had a few lessons in the subject. Yes, it does read rather like a YA novel, but we are seeing this world through the eyes of a 12-15  year old girl. Numerous reviews touched on what they thought was Selene's too modern sensibility about slavery; but as one reviewer pointed out, her opinion might have changed when she became a captive and potential slave rather than a princess.

What bothered me:  The writing is steady and even, but there are few highs or lows. Selene's character  is likable. Other characters are also likable, and some are despicable. They just don't have enough THERE there to make me love or hate them, which meant I didn't care much about what happened to them or root for their triumphs and downfalls. For example, in another of the Selene books, I wept at the death of Selene's youngest brother. His character was so finely drawn, his death left a hole in both Selene's world and my impression of that world. In this book, the brother's character is so one-dimensional and Selene's reaction so ho-hum, it feels like a check-box to tick on the plot outline. Ditto the drama with her twin brother's homosexuality; her antagonism toward her future husband, Juba; the prolonged mystery of the masked avenger; and her feelings about Octavian and Livia. Even Octavian's high-spirited daughter Julia (who surely deserves her own novel) is a rote character, and so are hints at what the Tiberius character will become.

In short, this Selene has about an inch of emotional depth, and her struggles (which surely must have been great) come across as petulant teenage angst. So, if you want a quick read about what happens after THE Cleopatra dies, this novel does a good job, but don't expect any stars, red carpet, and klieg lights.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday the 13th and ancient Egypt

Not all superstitions about Friday the 13th are bad. The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a spiritual journey that unfolds in stages. They believed that 12 of those stages occurred in this life, and the last, the 13th, was the ascension to an eternal afterlife. So the number 13 represented death to the Egyptians, but not death as in decay and fear, but as acknowledgement of a glorious eternal life.

There are two main Egyptian gods of the afterlife: Anubis and Osiris.

Osiris is usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. He was considered a merciful judge of the dead and  the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile. He was described as the Lord of love, He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful, and the Lord of Silence. The Kings of Egypt were associated with Osiris in death since Osiris rose from the dead. They would, in union with him, inherit eternal life through a process of imitative magic. By the New Kingdom all people, not just pharaohs, were believed to be associated with Osiris at death, if they incurred the costs of the funeral rituals. Oh, and Osiris is the love interest in my novel, Queen of Heka.

Anubis, the older god of the dead, was originally the most important one. He was replaced during the Middle Kingdom by Osiris. After his demotion, he was associated with the mummification and protection of the dead for their journey into the afterlife. During embalming, the head embalmer wore an Anubis costume. The critical weighing of the heart scene in the Book of the Dead also shows Anubis performing the measurement that determined the worthiness of the deceased to enter the realm of the dead (the underworld, known as Duat). He's also a character in the novel.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Those Romanov Girls

Reading about the last Romanovs always feels a bit like driving past a fatal car wreck. You don't want to look because you know what happens, but you can't help yourself. Just one peek, you say. Suddenly, there you are rubbernecking like the worst person in the world (or reading another book about the end of the Romanov dynasty).  A couple of months ago, I read a British review of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport and pre-ordered the book. I'm glad I did. I still might be rubbernecking, but I learned some new things and came away with a better understanding of the daughters and the world in which they lived.

When reading about the Romanovs, the sisters -- Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia -- always get lost in the shuffle of larger personalities. The less-than-prepared-to-be-tsar  father and the tragically flawed, sickly mother, both nonetheless buying into the whole notion of divine right and autocracy. The long-hoped-for but chronically ill brother about whom so many decisions were made that increased the trajectory of  the dynasty's downward spiral. The larger than life figure of Rasputin. The sisters themselves seem to even buy into this notion of being second-class characters by referring to themselves collectively as OTMA and publicly presenting themselves as a group.

Some critical reviews say this book still has a dearth of information about the girls. Relatively speaking, this is probably true. However, it's worth mentioning that the sisters were highly sheltered and not considered all that important by their family and friends during their lives. (They were not the heir and never would be, although for the first time you get a hint that Nicholas felt one of his daughters might have been a more worthy successor.) So, no one felt very compelled to write about them, and their parents took great pains to keep them out of the spotlight. Moreover, the girls themselves destroyed many of their diaries and letters n the days leading up to the revolution. The Bolsheviks who clearly didn't want anything left that might cause people to sympathize with the family destroyed many more artifacts that might have brought them into sharper focus.

What's left for us, the readers, is a basic, yet compelling account of four young women caught up in a maelstrom not of their own making. You come away with a sense of their ordinariness, their piety, their great love of family, and their very real patriotism. With the bits of information that are left to us, you can wonder if the revolution had not happened, might they have broken out of their cocoon as so many young women did after WWI shattered the old order?  What would they have been like if that had been the case? You can sympathize with their longing to be loved by someone and then falling in love with the guards who surrounded them, because who else did they ever see or meet? (When their loyal guards are replaced by Bolsheviks, you also sense their confusion as they try and fail to make friends with these new men as they always had done.) You can almost feel the mind-numbing boredom of their imprisonment and the growing sense of their own doom. In the end, you come away thinking they were really sweet, naive girls who must have gone into that cellar wondering exactly what they had done to deserve such a fate.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

You thought gardening was hard?

I  an a gardener. Like all gardeners, I sometimes employ helpers who sometimes drive me crazy and vice-versa. Sometimes, I even call upon the gods (or at least the eye of a god) to help me in my gardening endeavors. Exhibit A: My garden last spring.

But, make no mistake about it, we modern gardeners and gardener helpers are rank amateurs compared to ancient Egyptians. Exhibit B: the "Gardening Agreement" between Talames and her gardener Peftumont, c. 500 B.C, Egypt in this delightful post from the gardenhistorygirl blog.

Gardens were essential to  ancient Egyptians. Those who could afford to do so laid out gardens in front of both their houses and tomb chapels. The gods were even thought to enjoy gardens, and most temples were surrounded by lush greenery.  (See The Gardens and Ponds of Ancient Egypt.)

In my novel, Queen of Heka, Iset (Isis) is a gardener par excellence and often sees the world through gardening metaphors. Is it any wonder when she wants the attention of her lover, Asar (Osiris), she sends him a poem in which she is the garden and he the gardener?
Summon me like the sedge summons the bee.
I belong to you like the plot of ground
Where you plant flowers and sweet-smelling herbs.
I will come to you like a sweet stream, dug by my own hand,
To wander in a lovely place as refreshing as the north wind.
The preceding poem is based on an actual  New Kingdom love poem ( Poem 2, from IIc, The Third Collection, Papyrus Harris 500).