Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review - Cleopatra's Moon

I've always been drawn to the history and stories of Ancient Egypt and yet I've never done very much in terms of in-depth studies. It's one of those periods and cultures that I always intend to learn more about, but never seem to make the time. That's the main reason I was drawn to read Cleopatra's Moon. It's most definitely a work of fiction set in the era leading up to and immediately following the death of the famed Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. The book relies on historical information but fictionalizes the day-to-day actions of the daughter of Cleopatra…also named Cleopatra.

The book begins with a foreshadowing prologue featuring young Cleopatra Selene on board a Roman ship bound for some unknown location. We learn that her brother has died on board the ship and she is trying to convince the Roman captain and sailors to allow her to perform the Egyptian burial rituals. In spite of obviously being looked down on by the crew as a lesser citizen, she puts forth a strong argument and they eventually relent. During this opening segment, we are taken into the head of Cleopatra and learn of her absolute heartbreak and dismay as she prepares to bury the last member of her family. She is hatefully angry at the Romans for taking away her home and her family. She seethes with rage at the thought of all that she's lost over the past few years.

After this initial segment, we flash back in time to the childhood years of Cleopatra Selene and her two brothers in Egypt. Her mother Cleopatra and father Marcus are still alive though they are on the brink of battle with Rome. We are given some lush and vibrant descriptions of royal life in Egypt and the amazing culture, education and wealth of the Egyptian empire. We see the love and respect that exists within Cleopatra's family. We watch as each child is raised to be mindful of their heritage and their potential. They are reminded that they possess both Egyptian and Roman royal blood and as such they need to hold themselves to a higher standard.

The book progresses through history and takes us past the deaths of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra to the years when their children were taken captive to Rome. Rather than killing the children, Caesar takes them into his own home as his wards. There are numerous political reasons for this as outlined in the book and the fiction of the book makes the status seem logical and tense. The majority of the book focuses on the time the children spend in Rome. Cleopatra Selene grows from a young girl to a young woman. She is constantly on the lookout for a way to escape back to Egypt where she can hopefully raise an army to oust Rome and avenge her parents deaths.

The book is aimed at the Young Adult audience and likely at girls. As such, it wasn't surprising to find a love triangle brewing in the middle of this story of political machinations and vengeful desires. As the years go on, Cleopatra finds herself fighting with feelings of attraction towards some of the young men she deals with in Rome. In spite of any romantic inklings, she stays focused on her desire to return to Egypt and she tries to look at these relationships as tools she may be able to use to her advantage in escaping. Many times the author uses moments like this to not only give us insight into the character of the young Cleopatra but also to compare her to her mother and to try and paint a vivid picture of what kind of woman she was. I wasn't really keen on the love triangle aspect but I felt like it was well presented and it factored well into the history and the story.

To any history buffs who know the history of Cleopatra's family, the trajectory and ending of the novel will come as no surprise. Since I'm not an avid history buff, I felt the tension building and was unsure as to which direction things would take in the end or even which direction I wanted them to take. The author did a good job of keeping us as confused and frustrated as Cleopatra Selene as we worked through the struggles and difficulties she faced.

Also on the historical front, I found the world to be very gritty and "real" in terms of behavior and attitudes of the people and cultures. The point of view was definitely slanted to view Egyptians as wholesome and wonderful and to view Romans as disgusting and depraved and perhaps it was slanted a little too far in that direction. I don't know how accurate the historical representation is. What felt realistic was the attitude of the elite Romans to their captors, slaves and women. It really was pretty gritty and awful. And with Cleopatra Selene figuring in as both a captive and a woman (and at one point, very slave-like as well), there were plenty of us to see the disgusting behavior of "civilized" Roman culture. What's especially sad is to know that thousands of years later a lot of these stereotypical attitudes still pervade our own "civilized" society.

I loved the descriptions of the locations and the attention to detail throughout Egypt, Rome and its surroundings. The book really was filled with great sensory experiences that really drew me in. I had a harder time believing some of the actions and behaviors of the principle characters, particularly the children. Even though they were brought up in a royal family and they were children to Anthony and Cleopatra, I felt like Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother Alexandros were a bit too "adult" for their age a lot of the time. Their parents are killed when they are 11 years old. I had a hard time swallowing that Cleopatra Selene had the kinds of thoughts and actions she did in the months immediately following their deaths. At the same time, there were numerous scenes where the characters were very inept and naive and felt very much like children trying to live in an adult situation. I alternated between thinking she was either too smart or too stupid. I guess it balances out though.

This book "scratched the itch" for me of wanting to learn a bit more about Ancient Egypt and Ancient Rome. I acknowledge that it isn't historically exact but it is evident that the author did some fairly significant research and creates a believable Egypt and Rome. It may not meet the standards of history scholars but for those with some general interest in the subject, I think it fits the bill. I also appreciate the difficulty that must exist in trying to create a compelling fictional tale that is wrapped within the boundaries of whatever actual historical knowledge must exist. I suspect some historical truths may have been modified slightly for the story, but doing a quick search on my own, it seems like the author wisely selected a period of time without a lot of detailed information and so she had some freedom to move from point A to point B with great creativity.

Cleopatra's Moon was a fun read that really pulled me in. My biggest gripe was that sometimes the characters, particularly Cleopatra Selene, felt a little unrealistic at times but when you consider that they were teenagers in a very difficult situation, it made me a bit more lenient in my reading. As would be expected, there are some sad, violent and tragic scenes in the book. While they don't get overly graphic, they are certainly for older readers. I wouldn't recommend this for Middle Graders. I think it hits the "sweet spot" quite well for the Young Adult category. It will likely appeal more to teenage girls than teenage boys because of the pivotal story arc of the romantic triangle. But it does have a fair number of battles and political machinations which may keep boys interested as well. Overall I enjoyed the book and had fun with the story. More than anything, it reignited my desire to learn more about Ancient Egypt.

3 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

pretty cool...i will admit to being a little fascinated with egyptian history as well so the concept of this is intriguing....nice review...