Hand of Isis by Jo Graham This is the story of Cleopatra, as told by her half-sister and advisor, Charmian, to the gods. The author’s note said all surviving stories of Cleopatra are from the Roman conquerors. Here, Charmian, Cleopatra, and half-sister Iras are a trio who, at a young age, ask Isis to make Cleopatra Pharaoh so they can serve all of Egypt better, whereupon she appears to all of them in different aspects and agrees. The gods are therefore important and real, but Alexandria is intellectual enough that Charmian hides her dreams, even when they appear to come true. Charmian and several other key characters are reincarnations of people who in past lives were Companions to other charismatic and important rulers – Alexander the Great, for sure, and Arthur is also alluded to. One of these stories is told in her previous novel, Black Ships. Still, Cleopatra’s story is plenty entertaining on its own, as she starts fourth or fifth in line for the throne, and works her way up as her various siblings kill each other off or die of plague. The country she finally inherits is fractured along the lines of old Egypt and the Hellenistic coast and laden with the burden of a too-large debt to Rome for previous aid. There’s friendship with a young local scholar, and balancing romance and the call of extreme duty. Charmian grows from a mischievous slave girl into Cleopatra’s advisor and event planner, creating the magic behind Cleopatra’s mystique.
Quibbles: We have a trio of women running the country, serving a goddess, yet all of the many births are attended by male doctors. No midwives in all of Egypt? As far as I’ve researched, giving birth attended by a male doctor is a quite recent phenomenon. Another – the included glossary does not distinguish between the many real, historical characters and some that were probably made up for the book, such as Charmian’s blond slave mother or her Jewish and gay best friend. It’s disappointing both because I’d really like to know where the line between fiction and history is and because the book seems otherwise very carefully researched. She does say in the author’s note that all of the technology mentioned – steam engines, etc. – are absolutely historically correct.
All in all though, this is wonderful book, fascinating on its own as a story of women making their way in a male world, of political intrigue, and a look into a time of learning and tolerance that died with Cleopatra. I look forward to reading Graham’s other books.