CLEOPATRA'S MOON is Vicky Alvear Shecter's debut novel, an entertaining work of historical fiction that should appeal to teens who enjoy history or more pensive reads. This colorful, sophisticated tale brings to life an ancient religion with some unusual and mysterious beliefs, but its main focus is both passionate and philosophical, telling of the emotional journey of one person with whom most people are unfamiliar. Cleopatra Selene is the daughter of Cleopatra the Pharaoh, the heiress to the Kingdom of Egypt. She is unique not only for her being the last survivor of the Ptolemies, but also for her own strengths and exclusive position as witness to the rise and fall of the Egyptian Empire of the Antiquities.
"...an illuminating perspective on the Pharaoh as a leader and also the lesser-known story of her daughter, an impressive young woman who Shecter argues is actually the better of the two..."
Shecter's book begins in Selene's tender years with the story of her childhood in Egypt as the daughter of the only female Pharaoh in history. The book stretches on through Selene's young adult years as a captive in Rome, long after the deaths of her parents. As a child, Selene is headstrong and intelligent, a spoiled girl who enjoys a privileged existence for years, but who --- solely because of her mother's influence and culture of the Egyptians --- does appreciate the unique exposure and worldly atmosphere she's surrounded by. This is an atmosphere that values intellectualism, tolerance and philosophy ---- impressive achievements for the era. Raised by unusual parents, she is fearless and instilled with confidence and character. The art of the time records her mother as rising to power because of beauty and lust, but Selene quickly recognizes the truth: that Cleopatra's power comes from her respect for others. Even after her death, Cleopatra's personal values are ones that Selene remembers and emulates for the rest of her life.
The turning point for Egypt comes in the moment that Mark Antony, carried away with his own power and pride, publicly boasts of Egypt's elevated station and names his stepson, Caesarion, as Caesar. Many readers will recognize this as the inciting event that sparked a war between Rome and Egypt, the beginning of the end. Cleopatra's downfall is documented as due to her husband's pride, but Shecter makes the case here that Cleopatra also underestimated Octavianus. Her son's half-brother is corrupt and powerful, and has already established control over Rome and the senate. His influence is substantial enough that he possesses the power to stamp out any opposition.
As Octavianus marches on Egypt, marshaling Rome's vast armies in person, he's leading an unstoppable force toward certain victory. Cleopatra faces his armies herself, but, returning in defeat, is stunned as her oldest son is murdered in cold blood while attempting to flee. In short time, she must witness her homeland being annexed as yet another territory of Rome. Heartbroken, she turns her attention away from her country toward protecting her children from the brutality of a notoriously corrupt man.
Propelling forward in disturbing and moving directions, Cleopatra and Mark Antony commit suicide just as history records. But surprising events unfold surrounding Cleopatra and her death, the most striking being the total absence of any asp in the death ritual. Perhaps the mystery surrounding her passing is purposeful, turning the reader's attention toward other, more important things. In any case, Octavianus spares the lives of the remaining Ptolemy children in order to enslave and parade them, bound in chains, for all Roman citizens to taunt in public and to demonstrate the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire.
The entire second half of the book dwells upon the many grueling and emotionally taxing years as Selene and her brothers are held captive in a strange city. They are raised by Octavianus's wife, Livia, and also under the frequent supervision of Caesar's sister, Octavia. Ironically, these years among enemies are not without value and triumph, at least for Selene. She experiences episodes of happiness and matures both as a leader and as a great person in her own right.
Readers who are already familiar with the story of Cleopatra and the Ptolemies will find in CLEOPATRA'S MOON an illuminating perspective on the Pharaoh as a leader and also the lesser-known story of her daughter, an impressive young woman who Shecter argues is actually the better of the two, more influential and positive in what she accomplishes. Those unfamiliar with this history will find it very informing and quite empathetic, particularly regarding the suffering of conquered peoples. Cleopatra Selene's love story is a sideline here, but it is well written, touching, and true to history as much as we know it. Philosophical questions on free will and tolerance guide the moral side of contemplations, and anyone who enjoys philosophy should appreciate the tidbits about great philosophers from centuries ago.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on August 1, 2011