Before I begin, let me say that I am not a reader of historical fiction. KLEOPATRA brings my lifetime total all the way up to two. That I finished it at all is miraculous, but that I enjoyed it immensely is testament to its brilliance. The pages of KLEOPATRA are as entertaining as the scenes of a well-directed movie; and for those of you who are fans of the film medium, the motion picture rights have already been snatched up by Warner Bros., with the author slated to write the screenplay.
In her book, Karen Essex breathes life into the ancient world at the dawn of the rise of the greatest Roman emperors, imbuing the peoples of that time with multidimensional personalities and all the frailties that go along with being human. Richly detailed images of Kleopatra's Alexandria and the decadent city of Rome are painted with a stunning word pallet. The author's decade of travel, research, and rewriting have paid off, forming a compact biography chockfull of history softened by a thread of romance deftly woven through the tale.
Although it is possible some readers may find themselves repelled by descriptions of atrocities committed against the citizens, Ms. Essex indulges in no gratuitous gore. The Rome of Julius Caesar was, after all, a fearsome and often barbaric place, not Hollywood's imagined Empire. Nor was the mortal Kleopatra akin to her most famous portrayer, Elizabeth Taylor. Far from the seductress depicted on the big screen, the Queen of Egypt was a savvy political power, shrewd strategist and cunning diplomat. At once highly intelligent and clear-sighted, she occasionally demonstrated the youthful naivete of her chronological years --- but quickly learned from her mistakes.
The author introduces us to Kleopatra at age three, already a precocious and observant child. We are at her side through her struggles with her beautiful half-sister/stepmother and her treacherous sister cum usurper of the crown. The gods smile upon the fetching young woman, the favorite of her father, King Ptolemy XII. Between her astute advisors and her personal visions, Kleopatra chooses the path that takes her into exile with the king, saving her from certain death at the hands of her own flesh and blood, and building alliances that ultimately benefit her reign and Egypt. As she grows and continues to master the many languages she spoke, she gains favor with the masses as ruler alongside her father and pours the foundation for her reputation of being a compassionate and fair queen. No previous account has doubted her courage, but her loyalty to her two lovers has often been cast in shadows, the blame for their downfall landing squarely on her head. Ms. Essex promises to explode that myth.
Unfortunately, this novel, the first of two volumes, ends just short of Kleopatra's initial encounter with Julius Caesar at age 22. As it ends, she is grappling with her 12-year-old brother/husband, King Ptolemy XIII, for control of the throne. Volume II, PHARAOH, isn't due to hit bookstores until a year from now. In the meantime, we can savor KLEOPATRA slowly, time and again, luxuriate in Ms. Essex's prose and impatiently await the release of the sequel. To be continued...
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on August 9, 2001