Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Flashback Review (5): Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran ★★★★★

"Friday Flashback" is a weekly feature created by JG, The Introverted Reader.
Disclaimer: Some of these reviews may not be the best I've ever written, so just be forewarned! ;)

Cleopatra's DaughterMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was chosen for the May/June 2010 group read in the historical fiction group that I moderate on Goodreads, and I couldn't wait to read it, so I read a teensy bit early and finished it before the group read technically started. *blush* I'd been wanting to read one of Michelle Moran's books for a while, since I hear so much praise for them, and I'd planned on starting with "Nefertiti" with a friend, but that kind of fell apart due to other obligations. So I was thrilled when "Cleopatra's Daughter" was chosen, as it gave me the perfect excuse to shove all of my obligations off to the side for a day and read this.

And it literally only took me a day to read it. I could not put it down. I've always been fascinated by Ancient Egypt and Rome, so this one was right up my alley. (All of Moran's books at this point are right up my alley, actually!) I was not disappointed. The book starts with a bang with Cleopatra's rule crumbling around her, and follows Selene (Cleopatra's daughter) as she's taken from her home and country to Rome, which is rife with danger, uncertainty, spies, cattiness and political roller-coasters. Selene and her twin brother, Alexander, are guest/prisoners of the royal family, and never know what the next day will bring - an unwanted and unhappy marriage, slavery, death?

It's fascinating. I would have gladly read another 400 pages. There was so much going on between these covers that even though it was not action-packed, it felt like it was, and I just had to know what would happen next. This is the kind of book that made me love historical fiction - books that can bring a name and date-range to life, and make me not only intrigued by their life, but care about them, and empathize with them. So much in history is distant and boring that unless you have a real interest and passion for it, we forget to keep it alive. And much of history was so brutal and harsh that we forget that people who lived it were really people, and had hopes and dreams and fears that were probably cut short by the brutality and upheaval. It's easy to distance ourselves from that brutality, so that 30,000 deaths in such and such battle becomes just a number, and not a staggering atrocity.

But this book brought these ancient people to life, and I crossed my fingers for them, and mourned with them, and was angry on their behalf even though they've all been dead for 2000 years. I loved Selene's character. I admired her courage to do the right thing even when it could have cost her her life at any time. Her life was one thread away from forfeited as soon as she stepped foot off of Egyptian soil, but she still spoke up for those who could not speak for themselves. And this, in a time when callousness and bloodlust seemed to be an artform, is admirable.

I also loved the way that Octavian Caesar's loyal men were humanized, rather than just being expressionless moving statues which do the Caesar's bidding, they were men who were able to think and feel and hope themselves.

I also loved the political and societal issues depicted. Octavian's fear of any potential threat, his genius political maneuvering and manipulation, his ruthlessness all gave me chills. Livia's too, and her pure maliciousness made me want to slap her. I couldn't imagine living under the thumb of people like that. But then to counter them, Octavia, his sister, was kind and compassionate and charitable, even when she had cause not to be, and when it was almost pointless given the attitudes of the time.

Moran pulls no punches with this book, and shows the harshness of living in Rome at this time. Slaves were everywhere and harshly ruled and even more harshly punished at their owners' and/or corrupt judges' whims. Babies are cast out for being born the wrong sex, or for having a deformity, or for no reason at all other than that they are unwanted and are left to die of starvation or by the elements if not for charitable wet-nurses. It's appalling, but all of this combined to create a Rome that felt real to me.

I also liked the subtle nod to homosexuality in the book, and how it's accepted in private, but kept quiet in public. I'm glad that we're at a point now where being gay is socially accepted (by most) and doesn't need to be hidden.

Anyway, in short, I loved this book. The only thing that I can think of to complain about is a single misspelling: quite should have been quiet, and that should have been caught by an editor. ;) I will definitely be reading more of Moran's books. If they are half as good as this one it will be well worth it. :)

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