There's just something about a well-placed Egyptian eye that conjures Cleopatra's Egypt like nothing else and yet, this book, in a refreshing twist, focuses on Cleopatra's sisters, namely Arsinoe and Berenice, who find themselves out of Cleopatra's shadow when in 58 BC Berenice usurps the throne to become the first queen of Egypt in a thousand years. Arsinoe, then just eight years old, is in constant fear for her life as Berenice is not as supportive a sister as Cleopatra, and to Arsinoe's dismay, Cleopatra is now in exile and can no longer be of help to her.
What then follows is an atmospheric tale of two sisters who find themselves at the centre of Egyptian politics, in a court which is rife with intrigue, alive with danger and ridden with superstitions. Cleverly divided into alternate chapters, the story brings together both the elder and the younger sister thus giving vibrant life to Arsinoe and Berenice, and at the same time allowing a unique perspective into the intimate details of their lives.
As very little is known about either Berenice or Arsinoe I think that the author has done a credible job in bringing them to life so that they feel authentic, without being too contrived. Time and place is cleverly described and the opulence of living within the confines of the Egyptian court is cleverly juxtaposed against the collusion and conspiracies which lured the unsuspecting to their violent deaths.
Time and place comes alive in the imagination. The constant hint of danger, the uncertainty of life which was so easily destroyed, at whim, shows very cleverly the destructive nature of a family constantly at odds with itself. Of course, it must not be forgotten that this is historical fiction, but by blending together known facts, a fascinating story of the Ptolemaic dynasty emerges, and as I became immersed in the plots and machinations of Upper Egypt, Cleopatra’s Shadow was never very far away.
A good debut novel from a talented new author of Historical fiction.
Best Read with ..goblets of spiced Egyptian wine and platters of minted veal and honeyed duck
Emily Holleman became fascinated with Cleopatra's younger sister Arsinoe on a in 2011 trip to Egypt and has been researching and writing about the Ptolemies ever since. A graduate of Yale university, Holleman spent several years as an editor for salon.com - a job she left to follow Arsinoe and her quest for the throne of Alexandria. She lives and works in Brooklyn and is, unsurprisingly, a younger sister.
Find the author on Facebook and Twitter @emilyjholleman
My thanks to the publishers for my copy of this book.