“You are Cleopatra’s daughter,” he finally said. “But will you be mine, Selene. That’s the question, isn’t it?”
I could see it then, for the first time, as I had never seen it: he needed a protégé. He wanted me to belong to him, in spite of himself. My mother had also played this game with dangerous Romans. I must learn to play too. – Selene, Lily of the Nile
The saying "History is written by the victors" seems especially appropriate when applied to the late Ptolemaic period of Egypt, in which Cleopatra VII lost her ancient kingdom to the Romans under Octavian Caesar. History records a great deal about one of the most famous of Egyptian queens, including her liaison with Julius Caesar, and the son she bore him, as well as her love for Marc Antony. Less detail is available about the children Cleopatra gave Marc Antony. Now, author Stephanie Dray has researched the past and delved into the mysterious lives of the young children left behind when Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.
The twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene are born to privilege in the great city of Alexandria, where their mother is queen of Egypt and their father a celebrated Roman triumvir. At their births, the Egyptians hail them as saviors. It is not long before their mother calls upon the twins to do just that. Both bear a heavy burden in a struggle to preserve Egypt and their own lives against the rapacious intent of the conqueror Octavian Caesar.
Shackled with Helios and her younger brother Ptolemy, Selene publicly submits to Octavian in Rome, but she cannot forget the past in which she was destined to be a queen and inherit her mother’s mantle of power. Strange markings appear at random on her body, leaving her weak and bloodied, but also defiant. Now a political prisoner, she dwells with Octavia, Caesar’s sister, and the estranged wife of her father Marc Antony. Life in the household of her enemies is uneasy, as Antony’s other children look on Selene as an interloper and a threat to their positions with Octavian. A budding relationship with Juba, the deposed prince of Numidia and a close friendship with Julia, Octavian’s only daughter, offers Selene some comfort. Yet, Octavian’s obsession with the image he has cultivated of her mother continually endangers Selene, as does her brother’s determined struggle against their captors. One choice remains for her: to win or die.
Ms. Dray’s debut is vibrant, well researched and an easy read. I finished it in less than 24 hours. The ancient world comes to life with her excellent characterizations. Selene and Helios are two sides of the same coin, an equal match in varying strengths, but she stands out for her ability to play Octavian’s games and even master them. Octavian truly stands out as the villain of this novel, and Ms. Dray summarizes his personality well. His misogynistic attitudes toward Roman women lie at the heart of his obsession with Cleopatra, and later, her daughter. The fact that Selene is able to contend with his machinations is a true testament to her personal strength.
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