Author: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic)
Publication Date: August 2011
Hardcover: 384 pages
“The Luxe” meets the ancient world in the extraordinary story of Cleopatra’s daughter.
Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra & Mark Antony—the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, & when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she’s ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus’s household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies—until she reaches out to claim her own.
This stunning novel brings to life the personalities & passions of one of the greatest dramas in history, & offers a wonderful new heroine in Selene.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: I love a good historical fiction novel, but am wary of books that portend to be the romantic retelling of a famous historical figure’s life (usually Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, and so on and so forth). Not that I don’t like the romance – I do! But I yearn for the historical research, and the gritty details, and I am not (usually) partial to drastic historical rewrites. My interest was piqued for Cleopatra’s Moon when I saw that this book would not detail the famous life of Cleopatra and her doomed love with Marcus Antonius, but rather with her daughter, Cleopatra Selene.
Dear readers. Let me formally start off this review by confessing that I am currently in panic mode, trying to finish all of the potentially fabulous 2011 releases in time to formulate the most fair and informed Best of 2011 list as possible. There are a number of books I have let slip through the cracks and, unfortunately, Cleopatra’s Moon was one of them.
Thanks be to The Great Goddess Isis, I did read this book before the end of the year because oh my freaking GOODNESS IT IS FANTASTIC. This is the type of historical YA I yearn for, I burn for, I want to squeeze close to my heart and buy copies of for everyone because it is that damn good.
Ahem. With that off my chest, allow me to begin the review proper:
Cleopatra Selene is the only daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius, the aspiring lovers whose might would be toppled by the rise of Octavianus (Caesar Augustus), the emperor of Rome. Though her childhood is one of happiness and she cherishes every moment with her regal mother, beloved Tata, and three brothers, Cleopatra Selene’s family is torn apart when Octavianus impossibly fells Egypt. After Marcus Antonius takes his own life, and after the murder of her son Caesarion at Octavianus’s bidding, the great Pharaoh Cleopatra VII takes her own life – but not before bargaining for the lives of her three remaining children. Heartbroken, Cleopatra Selene, her twin Alexandros, and young brother Ptolly are ripped from their home in Alexandria and sent to live under Octavianus’s roof on the stinking Palatine Hill. With powerful enemies in their midst – from the cruel temper of Octavianus to the calculating machinations of his wife Livia Drusilla – Cleopatra Selene clings to the hope that one day she will return to her beloved Egypt and bring her country back to power. The only question remains – what will she sacrifice to return to glory?
From the devastating prologue to this book (foreshadowing to an older Cleopatra Selene in her sixteenth year), I was completely hooked. Though the punchline is already known when readers start the book (knowing the outcome of the tragic romance of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, the rise of Caesar Augustus, and the ultimate fate of Cleopatra’s children), Vicky Alvear Shecter brings a fresh new perspective to Egypt’s last glory days, creating a loving vision of Alexandria by the sea contrasted against a sweltering, fish-guts stinking vision of the Roman empire. Ms. Shecter, a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta, clearly has a love for the antiquities and a passion for history, and her effortless writing style evokes the tactile sensations and setting of these ancient empires beautifully. I loved the focus on both the political maneuverings (as seen and interpreted through the eyes of young Cleopatra Selene), just as I loved the harsh depictions of every day life in Rome, even for the patrician citizen; the realities of slavery, abuse, and rape are not hidden behind some romanticized vision of the past. The attention paid to the many different belief systems of the time are similarly well detailed and fascinating, from the Romans and the return to ‘piety’, to the Egyptian gods of old, to Judaism. On many occasions, Cleopatra Selene grapples with these different ideologies, raising some very interesting questions about free will and fate.
Beyond the writing and themes, the phenomenal cast of strong female characters is what makes this book for me. Ms. Shecter’s approach to these different women is nuanced and complex – Cleopatra is portrayed as a hero in her daughter’s eyes, but that perception shifts, taking form into something new as Cleopatra Selene grows older. I similarly loved the characterizations of Livia Drusilla, Caesar’s consort who is often painted in a conniving light, as well as Octavianus’s sister Octavia. Of course, the heroine of this piece is none other than Cleopatra Selene herself, as she grapples with the legacy of her parents, the loss of everyone she loves, and the hunger for power. Her voice throughout the book – from her childhood to her young teen years – is authentic and wholly sympathetic. Perhaps at times Cleopatra Selene asks too contemporary questions, particularly about the role of women in society and the injustice of laws written to favor men, but if anyone would ask those questions, certainly it would be this young woman (daughter of the Queen of Kings, and living in the household of the formidable Livia Drusilla, to boot).
Finally, because I cannot write this review without addressing it (and because the blurb of the book exaggerates a love triangle), there is also the romantic element to the novel. I cannot stress enough that Cleopatra’s Moon is NOT just some sappy love triangle – Cleopatra Selene, like her mother before her, finds ways to form allegiances for the strength of Egypt and for her family, both of which are always first in her heart. The best example of how much this book is not a sappy love triangle is in one of my favorite parts of the novel. In her initiation ritual to the following of Isis, Cleopatra Selene has a vision in which she is (supposedly) given the choice between two men…to which she reacts with exasperation – why should her fate be only tied up in choosing between two boys?
“You must make a choice,” the Goddess said.
“Is that my only choice – to choose between men?” I asked. “I want what Mother had!”
“Your mother chose two men,” she said with light laughter.
“No! She chose independence for her country. She chose power and freedom,” I yelled.
Almost as if in response, a pulsating energy moved up from the ground into my bare feet. It thrummed up my body and radiated out in a bright light, first from my toes, then from my fingertips, then the top of my head.
“I choose power,” I said. “I choose freedom.”
Ultimately, I loved Cleopatra Selene and her desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but then her gradual realization that her mother was not the flawless, godlike creature Cleopatra Selene held her to be. The Queen of Kings’ shadow is a long one, and watching young Cleopatra Selene make her own choices is an incredibly empowering and beautifully written journey.
I loved Cleopatra’s Moon wholeheartedly.
Easily one of my favorite books of 2011, and in the running for a spot on my Top 10 list for the year.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
What caused the gods to fall upon my family like starved lions in a Roman arena?
I suspect it began in my seventh year, on a day that I once considered one of the happiest of my life. It was a dazzling, sun-drenched summer morning in Alexandria-by-the-Sea. Outside the Royal Quarter, with the Mediterranean sparkling behind us and rows of date palms swaying before us, my mother and brothers and I sat alongside one another on individual thrones. We waited for my father, the great Roman general Marcus Antonius, to finish parading through the city and join us atop our grand ceremonial dais. The ceremony today would celebrate his victory over Armenia, his eastern enemy. And we — his family and all of Alexandria — would rejoice with him.
Even in the shade of our royal canopy, sweat trickled down my neck and back. The ostrich-feather fans the servants waved over us provided little relief. Strong breezes occasionally gusted from the Royal Harbor, cooling us with the salty bite of the sea. Despite the discomfort and the glare from the beaten silver platform at our feet, I forced myself to keep still as Mother had instructed, my eyes trained just above the horizon. Zosima, who had carefully painted my face, had forbidden me from squinting in the bright light. I was not to ruin the heavy black kohl around my eyes and eyebrows, and under no circumstances to cause the green malachite painted on my lids to flake off. I was not even to turn my head. I would follow all the rules perfectly, I swore to myself. I would make Mother proud.
But excitement and curiosity burbled in my blood as I fought to stay still, stealing side-glances whenever I could. I especially treasured my glimpses of Mother, Queen Cleopatra VII. She sat on a golden throne, looking as resplendent as one of the giant marble statues guarding the tombs of the Old Ones. Diamonds twinkled in a jungle of black braids on her ceremonial wig. She wore a diadem with three rearing snakes and a golden broad collar, shining with lapis lazuli, carnelian, and emeralds, over her golden, form-fitting pleated gown. In one hand, she held a golden ankh of life, while the other clasped the striped crook and flail of her divine rulership. Her stillness radiated power, like a lioness pausing before the pounce. It left me breathless with awe.
I sat up straighter, trying to emulate her, puffing up with pride at the realization that only Mother and I were dressed as true rulers of Egypt — she as the Goddess Isis and I as the moon goddess, Nephthys. After all, was I not named for the moon? My brother may have been called Alexandros Helios, for the sun, but I was Cleopatra Selene, the moon.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfection
Reading Next: Frost by Marianna Baer
Buy the Book: