Category Archives: Ancient Egypt

The Capsarius by Simon Turney

Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.

I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.

The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.

But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.

Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.

Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome

Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Cleopatra’s Shadows | Emily Holleman | 2015, Pb 2016 | Sphere | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily HollemanBerenice 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.