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- Author: Karen Essex
- Format: Hardcover
- Publisher: Warner Books
- Pages: 387
- Price: $24.95
Intrigue in Ancient Times
By Abbie Bernstein
October 15, 2002
KLEOPATRA by Karen Essex
© Warner Books
Historical novels about famous figures are a mainstay of the publishing industry. There is also a wonderful subgenre of books, beloved almost to the point of reverence by those who they've touched, that remain a virtual secret from many readers, which is the young adult historical novel.
Karen Essex's first novel KLEOPATRA
is written in a matter-of-fact yet descriptive style and aimed squarely at adults the sex and violence are pretty graphic and the political/religious tangles are as complex and multi-sided as possible. However, there's an energy and a willingness to get into the characters' heads that gives the story a frisky immediacy that is more common to novels written for readers who demand a level of connection that is often lacking in mainstream historical fiction. Essex sees her people from within rather than showing them to us from without we know why they want what they want and why all of them (even the baddies) think they're in the right. KLEOPATRA
therefore nimbly treads a tightrope between weaving meticulously researched physical details together with people who fulfill the obligations of fact yet have the fluidity of fully imagined fictional creations.
The novel begins when Kleopatra is three, a helpless witness to the events surrounding the death of her mother, the queen. Kleopatra's father, the Egyptian pharaoh Auletes, eventually marries his stepdaughter, Kleopatra's older half-sister Thea. As Kleopatra enters her teens, the stage is set for some wild intra-familial struggles between the youngest princess, aligned with her father, and her queen half-sister Thea, Amazonian middle sister Berenike and eventually Thea's and Auletes' son (also Kleopatra's younger half-brother and husband) Ptolemy for the thrones of Egypt and Greece, with representatives of Rome, including Pompey and Caesar, threatening to swoop down and seize everything.
Spectacle, political intrigue, action and sex all get their due here. Essex is expert at providing just enough scenery for the reader to envision the characters' surroundings without getting lost in arcane or obscure minutiae. Unlike many historical writers, she uses a descriptive vernacular that will be within most people's general frame of reference even when discussing objects and places that have long since vanished.
Where Essex really excels, though, is in empathy for the individuals within her story. Kleopatra is the central figure, but she's no paragon she can be naïve, brutal, selfish and conniving with the best of them, and she's perpetually egocentric, which the author depicts with understanding (egocentricity, after all, is a terrific survival trait) but not wholehearted endorsement. The supporting characters get their due, as well a eunuch who schemes against Kleopatra in favor of one of her sisters gets full marks for courage and intelligence, even though we recognize he's backing the losing side.
Essex also makes few moral judgments she has opinions about smart vs. shortsighted tactics, but feels no need to romanticize some characters' behavior and demonize others. For instance, Kleopatra is likely one of the few heroines in a popular fiction novel to determinedly opt to lose her virginity in a bout of anonymous ritual sex in order to accelerate her own sense of adulthood.KLEOPATRA
has no overtly supernatural elements, though a few characters have fairly accurate psychic insights. The magic is generated in Essex's evocation of a legendary yet largely unknown era and place. It is a measure of the author's skill that the novel ends before Kleopatra's famed interactions with Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony begin (these are chronicled in the sequel, PHARAOH
), yet the experience feels satisfying and complete.