Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter

If you are interested in reading about the life of Cleopatra there have been two novels for young adults recently published that will whet your appetite. The first, Cleopatra Confesses, I've previously reviewed. The second, Cleopatra's Moon, although written by a different author picks up at a latter time in Cleopatra's life. Cleopatra's Moon is a book about Cleopatra's daughter by Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra XVII Selene and this is partly what makes this book so unusual.

Told in Cleopatra Selene's voice, Part I of Cleopatra's Moon begins when she is a young girl of seven living in Alexandria-by-the-Sea. Cleopatra's father, General Marcus Antonius has just finished parading through the city to celebrate his victory over Armenia, his eastern enemy. It is one of the last happy moments in her life, shared along with her twin brother Alexandros Helios and her younger brother, Ptolemy XVI Philadelphos. Included in the Royal House of Egypt is Cleopatra's half-brother, Caesarion, the only son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
We learn that Octavianus, Julius Caesar's successor has declared war on Egypt and Cleopatra XVI personally. Octavianus' sister, Octavia was married by Marcus Antonius to cement a peace treaty. However, Marcus Antonius married Cleopatra XVI and divorced Octavia. This meant the breaking of the peace treaty with Rome. Octavianus has in fact started a civil war with Marcus Antonius for control of the Roman empire.

In Part I the author does a remarkable job of describing the beauty, grace and high degree of culture in Egyptian society that comprises Alexandria during 34 BC. The author tells her readers about Pharos, the magnificent lighthouse that guards the entrance to the harbour,
"We stopped under the striped canopy of the royal entrance to the Library. Attendants came running, bowing first to Caesarion, then to us. One bore a golden vessel with warm lotus-perfumed water to rinse our hands and feet; another took our cloacks and anything else we did not wish to carry.
As we entered the light-filled atrium, white-robed, white-sandaled scholars bustled by, bowing absentmindedly in our direction....
the amazing and vast library at Alexandria open to scholars throughout the known world,
"...I followed her to a more secluded corner of the roof, a deck facing the sea, giving me an astonishing view of Pharos, our Great Lighthouse. Its white marble glinted in the bright sun as immense plumes of black smoke billowed from the fires that burned day and night at its summit. I had never seen our Lighthouse from this height, and the magnificence of its colossal, three-tiered architecture took my breath away. Next to it, the ships moving in and out of our Great Harbour looked like ants crawling past the leg of a giant."
as well as the culture of the Egyptian court. There are detailed descriptions of settings, clothing and fashion, and life within the Egyptian Royal Court.
"I  moved into one of the side gardens ideal for private conversations. Date palms ruffled in the breeze, gray and mysterious in the dark. Occasional gusts of wind, rich with the smells of the sea, teased the scents out of sleeping lotus, jasmine, rose, and honeysuckle blooms. I never again smelled a combination so achingly beautiful -- the cool salt of the sea intermingling with the heady perfume of Egyptian blossoms." 

Marcus Antonius is portrayed as a loving, kind man, who cares for his family. The royal family is also portrayed as kind, respectful towards each other, thoughtful and educated. Greek, Latin, Persian and Punic are some of the languages family members are able to speak. Cleopatra Selene is portrayed as intelligent, witty and caring. She loves Egypt and is already preparing to someday follow in her mother's footsteps as Queen of Egypt.

Cleopatra's Moon also presents detailed descriptions of Egyptian religious beliefs and practices in magic and there is an especially brilliant passage where the young Cleopatra Selene and her brother Alexandros are exposed to the teachings of the Hebrews in the Jewish temple in Alexandria. In this passage Cleopatra tries to understand the notion of free will that is at the heart of the Hebrew religion and which is in contrast to the Egyptian belief of fate at the hands of their multiple gods and goddesses. Thus begins a struggle within Cleopatra - is she governed by fate or can she choose a different path?

Having set the stage so impeccably, this detail serves to impress upon the reader what Cleopatra Selene loses when her beloved Alexandria is overrun by the Romans. She is eleven years old and her parents, Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra return to Alexandria after losing at Actium and being betrayed by various allies. Octavianus tells Cleopatra she can rule Egypt if she murders her husband, Marcus Antonius which she refuses to do. Instead Marcus Antonius kills himself when he is mistakenly told that Cleopatra is dead. Octavianus imprisons Cleopatra, intending to parade her in triumph when he returns to Rome. She outwits him and kills herself, leaving her children to the whims of Octavianus.

Part II tells the story of Cleopatra Selene and her two brothers in captivity in Rome. They are part of Octavianus' household and believe they are under the protection of Octavia, Octavianus' sister. Rome is portrayed as less cultured than Alexandria, with it's dingy, dirty port of Ostia. Throughout Part II, Cleopatra Selene remarks on the contrasts between Egyptian/Greek culture and that of Rome. The Egyptians wear tunics of finely woven linen in contrast to the wool stola of the Roman women. Although Octavianus' home on the Palatine Hill is luxurious, they sleep in rooms which are small, dark and windowless compared to the open sunlit rooms of the royal palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra Selene begins to see that Rome has no real culture of its own - that it steals the culture of the nations it conquerors. It is primarily a military nation committed to plundering and conquering. Cleopatra Selene understands this especially so when she sees the plundered scrolls of her beloved library in Alexandria and is heartbroken when she sees hieroglyphs and obelisks as well as statues of the Pharaohs being carted into Rome.

Throughout much of her time in Rome, Cleopatra Selene tries to determine how she will someday return to Egypt to rule again. During this time she meets Juba, a Numidian Prince who was captured from his homeland as a baby and is now a scholar and who Cleopatra Selene develops a deep affection towards. However, Cleopatra Selene is pursued by Octavia's son, Marcellus, the son of Octavia who tells her that he will marry her and help her to regain Egypt. She is warned by Juba that such an alliance will never be allowed by Octavianus who hates Cleopatra Selene. He warns her that Marcellus is using her and does not love her. When Octavianus leaves on a campaign in Spain the situation in Rome comes to a dramatic conclusion. Cleopatra Selene must decide whether she will accept the fate the gods have destined her for or choose of her own free will to make a new life for herself.

Cleopatra's Moon is wonderfully written, engaging, historically accurate and well researched. Vicky Shecter has done such a great job of making history come alive for young readers. The beauty of Alexandria and the treachery of this era are exceptionally captured by the author. There is a detailed cast of characters at the beginning of the book and there is an excellent Facts Within The Fiction section which details which parts of the book are historically accurate and where the author inserted fiction into her account.

Brilliant! and fans of historical fiction will love one of this years best historical fiction novels.

Book Details:
Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Scholastic Books: Arthur A. Levine Books 2011

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