Karen Essex's Kleopatra presents an interesting hybrid of scholarly
research and literary fiction. The young Kleopatra is only four when her
mother dies and her step-sister, the heartlessly cruel Thea, marries her
father, King Ptolemy. Throughout her childhood, rivalry and intrigue
predominate court, while outside, Roman military might threatens Egypt.
The young Kleopatra, hungry for adventure and knowledge, spends her days
in disguise prowling the streets of Alexandria, learning the language of
her father's subjects, a skill which nearly everyone in the overwhelmingly
Greek court lacks. When her stepsister/mother successfully wheedles her
way into power, helped by the court eunuch, Kleopatra finds herself
abroad with her father, exiled for nearly two years from her home. When
returned to power, she remains loyal to Ptolemy, despite
questioning his decisions -- and despite his degeneration into debauchery.
Upon his death, she is forced into marrying her younger half-brother,
himself a pawn of court forces. When Kleopatra refuses to rule
complacently at his side, she flees the court in fear for her life,
enlisting the help of the Roman forces to regain her place of power.
What is interesting about this book, however, is that it transcends the
mere details of Kleopatra's life, going beyond social and military
history, and offering us a glimpse of the girl Kleopatra, with all the
trials and tribulations of growing up amid such a dicey time in Egyptian
history. The real-world drama of Roman conquest is interposed with
the very real drama of a young girl coming of age in a world where she is
allowed to rule as queen -- but only with a male consort. Her appetite for
adventure and knowledge gives us a good foreshadowing of the woman she,
according to history, is renowned for becoming. Essex, however, does not
paint the adolescent Kleopatra merely as a preview of the seductress
she will become, but stresses her skills as a scholar, a military
strategist, and diplomat. Most of all, the book never loses sight of the
real girl at the center of the myth.
Essex's skills in research are exemplary, and according to the jacket
copy, she spent years of scholarly work and travel to complete the
book. Her use of the novel form to embody such research makes the history
and its characters much more tangible than a mere scholarly volume. While
the novel leaves off shortly after Cleopatra has returned to court under
the protection of Julius Caesar, there is a promising next
volume due out in August, 2002. As both history, romance, and coming-of-
age story, Kleopatra is highly recommended.