Caveat up front: This is a slightly edited version of the review I posted on Goodreads in June.
Earlier this year I read an interview with Michelle Moran on Sharon Kay Penman’s blog. The occasion was the then imminent release of Cleopatra’s Daughter (the interview was posted on September 14th 2009). The interview and the subject of the book intrigued me, so when I got to order a new bunch of books, I made sure to include the book. And I was glad that I did.
Cleopatra’s Daughter is a historical novel about the children of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Starting in Alexandria, the largest part of the narrative takes place in Rome. It’s a sprawling city, seething with schemes born of ambition and greed. In this ever-changing place Selene Kleopatra, daughter of Egypt’s greatest queen, must carve out a life for herself, always making sure to remain useful to Caesar and stay alive.
The story is told in the first person from Selene’s point of view. It’s nicely paced and never bogs down, rather the opposite in fact. In the last fifty pages of the book the story moves at a breakneck speed, so fast that it feels rushed. More on why this part bothered me so much later on.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Anything Cleopatra remains fascinating and the story of her children is equally interesting. Selene does come across a little old for her age, but seeing she was raised a princess that might not be so surprising, plus in her age children were considered adults and of marriageable age at a far earlier age than nowadays. Added to this though, Selene is also very modern and liberated for the Roman age, apprenticing herself as an architect and actually getting her hands dirty building. This is consistent with what is known about Selene historically though and never jars with the rest of the story.
On the whole Ms. Moran seems to be very comfortable in her historical surroundings and knows her Roman history and civilization. She includes small details from that time, such as the red wedding veil or the inclusion of garum at the wedding feast, without explaining that these were Roman customs or commodities. There is no unnecessary exposition, though a glossary and timeline are included in the book. The author is knowledgeable, without ever flaunting her knowledge.
The (non-historical) Red Eagle makes for a great plot device and kept me guessing about his or her identity right up to the end. The Red Eagle and slavery in general is an important theme in the book. It’s touched upon in many different ways: through Selene’s realization that only her Roman blood made the difference between being a guest or a slave in Rome, through the trials her and her friends visit and through the actions of the Red Eagle.
The only thing that really bothered me about this book is the last fifty pages. To me they felt rushed. Not so much the writing, but the pace at which events unfold and plot lines were resolved. It all felt rather abrupt and left me a little startled at its precipitousness. But even though the ending is sudden, it is, ultimately, satisfying (if a little pat) especially after reading Moran’s afterword which gives a quick overview of what happened to some of the main characters of the story.
Overall at the core this is a thoroughly enjoyable story and a great read, which I would highly recommend to anyone who loves historical fiction or the Roman era.