Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

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Emily Holleman, a Brooklyn-based writer, is currently working on a set of historical novels that reimagines the saga of Cleopatra from the perspective of her younger sister, Arsinoe. The first, Cleopatra’s Shadows, is described as “a perfect marriage of dedicated research and passionately inventive story telling.” Emily is also a younger sister.

Emily Holleman’s debut novel brings to life the exotic world of ancient Egypt and the Ptolemy dynasty. Cleopatra’s Shadows focuses on Cleopatra’s two little-known sisters, Berenice, the elder, daughter of Ptolemy and Tryphaena, his first wife, and Arsinoe, the younger, daughter of the concubine and sister of Cleopatra.

The Romans stole Cyprus from King Ptolemy’s brother and the citizens of Alexandria are in a near-open revolt. Ptolemy is seen as a lackadaisical king who prefers to play his flute rather than defend the lands of the Ptolemy dynasty. Ptolemy flees over the seas with his concubine, Cleopatra and Arsinoe’s brothers, Aspasia and Hypatia. Ptolemy wants the help of Rome to maintain control of Alexandria.

As Ptolemy flees, the 19-year-old, Berenice, Arsinoe’s half-sister, leads the soldiers in a bloody coup. The strong-willed Berenice is determined to return Alexandria to its past glory. Berenice becomes the first queen of Alexandria to rule in her own right in over a thousand years. She takes over the city, goaded by her mother, who wants revenge on her husband and his concubine.

Arsinoe, at age eight, understands little of the palace intrigues, but she senses something is wrong. No one will tell her the truth about what has happened. Arsinoe quickly realizes that she is alone. Her indifferent and cowardly father has sailed without her. Her idolized sister Cleopatra, the favored one, has sailed without her. Her mother sailed with Ptolemy and abandoned her but saved her two sons. Arsinoe is truly all alone.

Berenice’s eunuch, Pieton, informs her that Arsinoe was found hiding beneath her bed by one of the guards and suggests that it might be wise to spare her life. By doing so, she may gain favor with her subjects. Berenice decides to grant Arsinoe an audience. Arsinoe is guided through all the intrigues by her faithful nurse, Myrrine, and her teacher, the eunuch Ganymedes. With Ganymedes’ help, Arsinoe manages to ingratiate herself with Berenice and survive. Berenice tells everyone that Arsinoe has her favor; she is a Ptolemy princess and is to be treated as such.

Arsinoe’s two faithful servants try to keep her life the same as it was before the coup. Myrrine continues to bathe her and dress her. Ganymedes schools Arsinoe and Alexander, a childhood playmate, in the ancient texts from the famous library in Alexandria.

The novel alternates between two points of view, those of Berenice and of Arsinoe. Berenice is seen as a strong, determined queen. In her story, Berenice makes decisions that will affect the realm. She decides to give grain to her subjects, prays for the Nile to flood so the crops will be bountiful, worries about her father’s return, balances the intrigues of the palace staff, marries, and tries to keep her blood-thirsty mother under control.

Arsinoe is a child who quickly matures and learns to fend for herself. She reads the ancient scrolls from the fabulous library of Alexandria, protects Alexander, and roams the streets of Alexandria when Ganymedes mysteriously disappears.
Throughout Arsinoe’s tale, she suffers from dreams or visions. At first Ganymedes dismisses the visions, but as the story progresses he seems to fear the power of Arsinoe’s visions, as they portend a future over which neither he nor Arsinoe has any control.

Not much is known about this time period in ancient Egypt, so Holleman is able to interpret history as she needs to for her novel. The story is straight forward; Berenice overthrows her father when he leaves for Rome. The tension builds as Berenice tries to acquire an army to ward off her father when he returns to reclaim his throne. She decides to marry, but it doesn’t work out well. She has her husband killed. She knows that the only solution is to consolidate empires, so she decides she must marry again. Still, Berenice worries about having enough soldiers to ward off the Romans, who are determined to conquer the world and see Egypt as a breadbasket for Rome’s armies instead of as an equal power.

Arsinoe is almost an afterthought who must figure out what to do in the turmoil. Yet Arsinoe is likeable. As a child, she is very clever and manages to survive where others might not. Her innocence is forever lost in her efforts to stay alive during the three years of the novel.

Holleman’s writing style is tranquil and draws the reader in as she relates the novel. Cleopatra’s Shadows is the first novel of a proposed series. Undoubtedly, the pace will pick up as Holleman begins writing about Cleopatra and her colorful life. ■