I’ve been fascinated by Ancient Rome ever since studying Classical Studies in high school – something about the forging of empires and the birth of so many of our modern ideals is absolutely fascinating. Reading Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series only left me more fascinated about the empire and the influence it had on surrounding kingdoms, including the dynasties of Egypt. Lo and behold, Cleopatra’s Shadows shows up on my doorstep, an Egyptian mirror of the same time in history as the same series I have just finished. A debut novel by Emily Holleman, the cover alone was striking enough to make me dive in.
Everyone knows Cleopatra but her sisters, with the passage of time, have been relegated to mere shadows. Holleman’s novel focuses on the two lesser known sisters – the usurper, Berenice, and the younger sister, Arsinoe. A hostile takeover of the throne by Berenice sees Cleopatra flee to Roman shores with her weak-willed father, the former King. Arsinoe must fight for her own survival in a court that is openly hostile to the children of a concubine, learning quickly how to play the games of power. Berenice battles constantly with her angry mother, a court of advisers that are only too quick to further their own agendas and with traditions that she feels no longer serve a new Egyptian kingdom. Both find themselves in situations that test not only their courage but their humanity.
I was completely sucked into this novel. It was one of those books that I literally only put down because my son would wake up from his nap time. Holleman’s previous experience as an editor for Salon.com is apparent in her ability to craft masterful chapters but it goes beyond that to a real passion and desire to tell the stories of her subjects. I don’t think I’ve felt as much compassion for a character since I read The Other Boleyn Girl. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for future novels by Emily Holleman – at the very least, I need to know what happens next to Cleopatra’s shadow sisters!