Review by Kelly P. (KellyP)
Like the song says, I’m proud to be an American and I can’t imagine being from anywhere else. But, when I read a book like Hand of Isis by Jo Graham, I wonder what it would be like to be from a country with a documented and chronicled history going back to ancient, ancient times.
The years that Cleopatra ruled (51 BCE – 30 BCE) were practically modern times when compared to the history on which her reign rested. Alexandria, founded by and named after Alexander the Great (three hundred years earlier, let it be noted) was a rich and vibrant place, rich in culture, history and education as well as in grain, gold and other treasure.
Set against the backdrop of Alexandria, this book is about Cleopatra, told from the first-person perspective of Charmian, one of Cleopatra’s two half-sisters who were also her handmaidens and confidantes. We are given glimpses of the childhood the three girls shared, and the responsibilities to Egypt they all three bore as daughters of Pharaoh. The story carries us through Cleopatra’s rule of her country, where she was loved and revered as Isis incarnate, her great love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, her political skill in very unsettled times for her country, and ultimately the death she chose for herself.
The book is well-researched & well-written. It has wonderful depth and well-developed characters – primary and secondary. One of the most fascinating subplots to me is the author’s portrayal of the relationship both the Roman and Egyptian people had with their gods.
One recurring theme throughout the book is reincarnation – that the same soul will come back time and time again. For example, that Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great were one and the same soul. That three hundred years before Charmian was born to be Companion to Cleopatra, she had been Companion to Alexander as one of his bodyguards. While I found this aspect of the book very interesting, it may be off-putting to other people.
The book is loosely structured in the style of flashbacks. Charmian has died and is standing before the court of Isis and Osiris having her life reviewed and judged so that her afterlife is appropriate to the life she led. As she tells her story to these two deities, we get the main story. We don’t have these interludes before the gods very often, just enough to bridge different elements of the story, add depth and understanding to some of the events, give a little more clarity to Charmian’s thinking, etc.
Isis and Osiris are joined at one point by Mikhael, angel to the Jewish god, because one of Charmian’s great friends is Dion, a Jewish scholar and inventor from Alexandria. When Mikhael walks into the ‘court,’ he is made welcome by Isis and Osiris, but his presence is questioned. He answers that where Charmian’s path crossed Dion’s, he (Mikhael) was there and he wanted to speak of what he knew about Charmian’s life. This was a very nice touch – and served to underscore the acceptance of all people in Egypt during this time.
The copy I read was an ARC and there were a few cumbersome paragraphs and passages that I hope got cleaned up in final edit. There is also one rather explicit sex scene; so out of character with the rest of the book that I questioned its purpose. But, in reading the interview with the author, I discovered she had a very definite reason for including the scene.
The book comes complete with a map, a glossary and an interview with the author – wonderful bonus material!
I really enjoyed this book; I give it a resounding 5 out of 5 rating and would recommend it to anyone interested in reading a book about Cleopatra, told from the Egyptian point of view rather than the more customary Roman (or western) POV.