Karen Essex
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Buy *Kleopatra* online Kleopatra
Karen Essex
Grand Central Publishing
416 pages
August 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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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 they are Curled Up With a Good Book 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.

© 2001 by Kristy Bowen for Curled Up With a Good Book

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