Cleopatra’s Shadows | Emily Holleman | 2015, Pb 2016 | Sphere | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
Berenice has seized the crown of Egypt – her half-sister Cleopatra sails for safety with their father, leaving the youngest sister Arsinoe behind. Arsinoe is just a child, near defenceless, with nothing but her wits and strength of personality to protect her from a vengeful, ambitious sister whose interests would be best served by Arsinoe’s death. Arsinoe has few friends – a tutor, a nurse, a fellow pupil – but the child can trust no-one. Instead, Arsinoe must rely on the Alexandrian palaces’s secret corners, its hidden corridors, spending as much time as she can playing in its beautiful gardens, away from anyone who might recognise her.
But Berenice is as alone as Arsinoe. She is Queen, a goddess, but holding on to that power is an endless struggle – she can rely on nobody, especially not a husband. Just like her sister, Berenice is surrounded by eunuchs and servants but Berenice must also listen to politicians, generals, aristocrats, each pouring advice, secrets and desires into her ears. All the time, she must keep one eye and ear open for the news from Rome, where her father and half-sister Cleopatra plot with the Mediterranean’s new masters.
Alternating between the sisters, moving between chapters headed ‘Younger’ and ‘Elder’, Emily Holleman carries us back over two thousand years to ancient Egypt, a land as dangerous as it is exotic. While our sympathies are easily engaged by the child Arsinoe, who is a delight to spend time with, the author works harder than this. As time goes by, we become as invested in Berenice’s story. Powerful women were few and far between at this time in history and, in Egypt, it’s hard enough for a royal to survive, let alone rule as Queen. Berenice uses every wit and guile at her disposal but ultimately she is at the mercy of men, at home and abroad. Her determination and effort are extraordinary and, despite the charm and courage of Arsinoe, it’s Berenice who stole my heart in Cleopatra’s Shadows.
The most famous of Egypt’s Queens is tantalisingly absent. Cleopatra appears just briefly. I did wonder if this would matter but it didn’t at all. This is a fully-imagined, three-dimensional world. I absolutely adored Cleopatra’s Shadows. It is a beautifully-written novel. I couldn’t have asked for more from it. Arsinoe and Berenice are wonderful characters, each with a distinct voice and a compelling story of their own. The novel contains both intrigue and adventure (lots of adventure, Arsinoe attracts it like a magnet). It presents an exotic world but also reminds us of Rome standing waiting on its shores. But it’s also a very personal story – it’s impossible to imagine a family more dysfunctional than the Ptolemys, nor an ancient family I’d want to read about more. The cruelty that both sisters have endured, the loss of mothers, the malice of stepmothers, the disdain of fathers, the treachery of servants. The sisters have been forced into an animosity they didn’t choose. This might be ancient history but its story is timelessly gripping.
Cleopatra’s shadows is the first in a series and this makes me very happy indeed. It ends at a point that cries out to be continued even though it is clear that this first phase of the story is complete. I cannot praise this fine novel enough. With no doubt at all, it is one of my top reads of 2015.