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by Karen Essex
This is another and largely successful attempt in historical fiction to rehabilitate Kleopatra, as the author spells her name. (The other novel, by Margaret George, was planned and written during roughly the same time frame.) Ms. Essex also gives due value to Auletes, Kleopatra's father, whose complex personality is often deliberately ignored by historians. The current book covers the story up to the queen's first meeting with Julius Caesar in Alexandria after the death of Pompey, with emphasis on Kleopatra's early childhood. The sequel will be published in 2002.
Let me start out by saying that the book is beautifully written. Ms. Essex knows her craft, imaginatively and vividly portrays the ancient world, and keeps the reader's interest throughout.
Would that this were all. Ms. Essex admits, in publicity and interviews, that she is on a crusade to rehabilitate the Egyptian queen. This is a laudable enterprise, as historical fiction reaches many more readers than historians do. However, in her eager partisanship, Ms. Essex has gone a bit too far, overdoing the precocity of the very young Kleopatra, and portraying the Romans mostly in a ruthlessly negative way. It is one thing – and perfectly valid and necessary to the story – to view the Romans through Egyptian/Ptolemean eyes when Kleopatra talks or thinks about them, but another to have them act as largely cardboard figures when appearing in person in or out of her view. And one cannot negate the ancient gossip about Cleopatra and at the same time accept the one about Caesar as truth--or even skewing the truth, such as saying that the king of Bythinia paid the ransom for Caesar, or that Mark Anthony had to go to Greece because he had seduced Fulvia and feared Clodius' wrath. I could cite several more such examples.
The book is certainly extensively researched, but one would have wished for an introduction or afterword in which Ms. Essex could have cited the major ancient and secondary sources she utilized, and explained when and why she deviated from generally accepted facts, or which characters in the book are invented, as now is common practice among historical fiction writers. One can only hope that this will be rectified in Volume II.
Included in the book is a Ptolemean stemma which ignores the fact that the identities of Auletes' wives are educated guesses only. At least one historian thinks that all children may have had the same mother. Unless Ms. Essex can give us a valid source for her chart, this is intellectual dishonesty.
In the book, Kleopatra accompanies her father to his exile in Rome. There is a vague indication – mostly, and maybe unjustly, ignored by historians – that she may have indeed done so. But it boggles the mind to think that an eleven year old, however precocious, would have encountered so many major players of the events of the times. The more so as such personal encounters are not necessarily needed for the story. And sources are divided whether or not Latin, at that point in her life, was one of the many languages which Kleopatra spoke.
We can look forward to the second volume, the portrayal of Cleopatra's relationships with the two men in her life, Caesar and Mark Anthony, and the conclusion of the story. But to this reader, there is a nagging feeling that the pendulum has swung too far, simply for the sake of feminism.
© 2001 Irene B. Hahn
Another view on the book by N.S. Gill on About.com
by Karen Essex
Paperback, 416 pages (August 2002)
List Price US$13.95
Pharaoh (Kleopatra, Volume II)
by Karen Essex
Hardcover, 400 Pages (August 2002)
List Price US$24.95
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