PHARAOH is, in a word, breathtaking. In more than a word: barbaric,
sensual, entrancing, romantic, tender and cruel, with a lusty cast
of characters. Karen Essex presents her vision of the great queen
of Egypt in this captivating novel rich in detail and, if anything,
filled with more historical minutiae than the first volume,
KLEOPATRA. It is a kaleidoscope of Roman and Greek trivia.
With a familiar cast of characters, including Cicero, Cato,
Octavian, and of course, Marcus Brutus, comes a fresh slant on this
timeless tragedy. Kleopatra is not painted as the philandering
vixen of the movies. Her fabled charms surface in small ways
throughout the story, but Ms. Essex focuses on Kleoptra's political
cunning and war tactics in her efforts to forestall takeover by the
greedy Roman empire.
PHARAOH continues the mystique of KLEOPATRA, published last year.
It begins in the 20th year of Kleopatra's reign as she is trying to
rejuvenate a listless Marc Antony. Within a few pages, we are back
in the third year of her reign. We join her at age 22 as she
returns from exile, devising a clever ploy to evade her brother's
army and seduce her way into an alliance with the great Julius
Caesar. The book tells her life story from then on and only
occasionally do we get a sense of foreboding in the chapters that
jump ahead to the 21st year of her rule.
I won't bore you with a synopsis of the plot, for the story has
been told many times. We all know of the betrayal of Caesar and the
disastrous end Antony and Kleopatra came to. Yet Ms. Essex managed
to grip and hold onto my attention from the very first page.
The author's ability to mesmerize her audience is showcased in
myriad scenes, one of the best being Ceasar's murder. She
personalized it for me by putting me right there beside him in the
Senate, facing his assassins. The scene is not shortened in an
effort to spare the bloody gruesomeness. Each blow of the dagger
brought an empathic sort of pain. Caesar's thoughts as he lay dying
--- imagined, by necessity --- ran through my head, leaving behind
seeds of ideas and philosophical musings to mull over later.
But Kleopatra's horror at the realization of her predicament
snapped me out of the reverie created by Caesar's joining with the
gods. The serious position his death placed her in stole my
attention and I could do nothing but read on, spellbound, anxious
to see how the gods would favor her escape.
Sex pervades the story's atmosphere. This was an era when sex was
used to further political strategies. But Kleopatra's best advice
from her Prime Minister takes precedence more than once: "In
matters of state, let your blood run cold." For a woman of her
intense passion, this proves to be very difficult.
Although a highly engrossing read, I could not bring myself to move
through the story with any speed, choosing instead to savor each of
Ms. Essex's exquisite words. The last 30 pages or so took a couple
hours to read, for the beauty of the writing mixed with the tragedy
of the lovers' last days kept me running for Kleenex and tracing
the keenly detailed events again and again.
The only down side to finishing this book is that, at its end,
Queen Kleopatra, the subject of both volumes, has died, so that a
third installment doesn't seem likely. Maybe Ms. Essex would like
to tackle Mary, Queen of Scots, next. I'd like to see what literary
magic she could work on that much-maligned royal.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 22, 2011