I became fascinated with everything about ancient Egyptian history when I was in about the fifth grade. I have no idea what sparked my interest but I could not read enough about it. Most of us have read about Cleopatra in school if nowhere else, but most of what we learn has a very set pattern to it. What about her family? I may have read a line here or there about them but the history I learned seemed to have shuttled them off as unimportant in comparison. When I read the publisher’s description of Emily Holleman’s debut novel, Cleopatra’s Shadows, I was once again fascinated. Ms. Holleman did extensive research to dig into the family relationships and the parts of Cleopatra’s life that aren’t commonly known, and she makes it come alive on the page. If you like books about family relationships, women, or dangerous court intrigue then you’ll want to check out the rest of our review for Cleopatra’s Shadows. And one of you is going to win a copy, so be sure to enter our giveaway!
What you may not realize is that Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy, was a direct descendent of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian. [Please note: There were more than eight Ptolemys who ruled in Eqypt, as there were a number of Cleopatras. This Ptolemy is the grandson of Ptolemy VIII.] Our Ptolemy had more than one wife and that prompted power struggles within this royal family. Not only that but he was an embattled ruler who, in his desperation to hang onto his kingdom, abandoned his throne to take his young daughter Cleopatra with him to Rome where he planned to seek help in fighting all of the rulers who wanted his territory. It was a last-ditch effort on his part to salvage a weakened kingdom that all around him saw as fair stakes in a high-powered game of king of the hill.
“Still, she [Arsinoe] felt that they, too, mourned Cleopatra’s loss. Her sister’s absence sucked the joy from the palace. Sometimes she wished that her own might have the same effect. But no one would notice if she vanished into thin air.
Myrrine [her nurse] chided her on her return. ‘Arsinoe, you mustn’t run off like that!’
‘I only went down to the docks.’
‘Only down to the docks? You could have been – there’s no telling what might have happened.’
‘But nothing did. Nothing ever happens.’
‘Of course it didn’t,’ the nurse’s voice quavered. She knelt beside Arsinoe. Her eyes were red and swollen. She’d been weeping, too. ‘But promise me that you won’t go rushing off like that again.’
‘I promise,’ she lied…
Arsinoe wasn’t so easily fooled. She could feel the wrongness in the air. The massing guards, the abandoned docks – none of it added up. And no one would tell her the truth. If only Cleopatra were here, she would help make sense of the goings-on.”
Left without a king in place, Macedonia was in grave peril so Berenice, Ptolemy’s oldest daughter by his first wife, seized the throne of Egypt. When that happened, Cleopatra’s mother fled the country in the middle of the night with her youngest male children in quite correct fear for their lives. Unfortunately she didn’t take Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe, with her – abandoning her to the almost certain fate of death. Cleopatra’s Shadows is Arsinoe’s story.
Eight-year-old Arsinoe may have only been several years younger than Cleopatra but she was always perceptive to the unseen power struggles in the palace. When their father shipped off with Cleopatra and left her behind, and her mother disappeared with her younger brothers, Arsinoe knew she had been left to the whims of fate. She knew Berenice had no love for any of the offspring of her father’s second wife, so Arsinoe feared her fate had been sealed. To make it even worse, her trusted nurse soon disappeared and her loyal guard is murdered. Despite taking great pains to curry Berenice’s tolerance if not favor, Arsinoe walks on broken glass every day, wondering if it will be her last.
“’Leave that,’ the eunuch commanded. ‘I told you to bring nothing.’
She opened her mouth, but she held her tongue…In silence, she followed the eunuch out into the antechamber. And there – there she met with horrors: Myrrine’s divan lay empty, and Agamemnon was sprawled across the stone, his head wrenched to one side and his lips stained with wine. Drugged or dead, she couldn’t tell…He’d died. He’d died for her. And then she saw the other guard: Achilles stood upright, awake, alert. She gasped.
‘It’s all right,’ the eunuch told her. ‘You can trust him.’…
The three fell into a marching step. Achilles, a soldier through and through, matched her eunuch’s stride; it took her two paces to equal each of theirs…Ganymedes’ (the eunuch’s) step quickened. She raced to meet his new stride, but Achilles did not. His footfalls faltered. The false ones did as well.
‘Ganymedes,’ she breathed. A sword whistled against the night air.
‘Don’t look back,’ the eunuch whispered. Steel clashed against steel. She hurried on. A man groaned in agony – was it Achilles?”
Could Berenice hold the kingdom together in their father’s absence? Would she willingly relinquish it to him if or when he returned or would her love of power, and her hatred of his favoritism toward Cleopatra, poison her against her own father? Would she allow Arsinoe to survive or would Arsinoe be such an unbearable reminder of what was done to her mother that she kills Arsinoe just so she won’t be reminded of that betrayal? Can Arsinoe bend herself into such a milquetoast of a person that Berenice will dismiss her as a threat or will Berenice’s paranoia cause her to eliminate any faintly possible threat – even an eight-year-old one? Will their father get the assistance and support he craves from their prior enemy, the Romans? Will some invading army try to seize the kingdom while it seems vulnerable in his absence? What will become of Ptolemy’s line?
Arsinoe is put into a life-and-death situation when the very people she depends on for survival all abandon her at once. At the age of eight, she should be protected and be growing mentally, emotionally, and physically instead of literally fighting for her life on all of those levels. An eight-year-old is not equipped to deal with the kinds of situations she’s thrust into…and, yet, she proves to be quite a survivor – at least at first. The family dynamics and the perils of living on the kind of royal pedestal this family occupies are dizzying. They will make your family look quite normal in comparison. This is a deadly family to say the least. And their circumstances are just as dire and deadly. The strength the females in this family exhibit under profound stress took my breath away.
Emily Holleman researched the Ptolemy family history for several years before writing Cleopatra’s Shadows, and she brings to us a story that’s unlike anything I’ve ever read about this amazing family. She puts their reign into context that reaches far beyond Upper Egypt, which is truly just one piece of a very complex political interlocking puzzle. As usual, the history we got in our textbooks is greatly diluted compared to what was really happening in that part of the world at that time. It sheds a new light on the whole Cleopatra story as we’ve known it. I’m so glad I read it and, if you’re a historical novel fan, I think you will be too. I’m highly recommending it.
Can’t wait to read it? Cleopatra’s Shadows is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller. Just click the link below to go get it for yourself or for someone on your gift-giving list!
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