Born in the 1st century B.C., Cleopatra was the favorite of her father, the pharaoh of Egypt, who bypassed his older daughters and made her his heiress. Her early life was a ruthless struggle for survival against her siblings and in face of Roman encroachment on Egyptian sovereignty. This novel, which takes her from a precocious 10-year-old to a 22-year-old queen, ought to be full of emotional juice. It isn’t. In this first-person account, Cleopatra has little to confess. There is hardly any romantic intrigue and, more generally, there isn’t much feeling. When their father puts Cleopatra’s disloyal and dangerous older sister to death, Cleopatra watches her being dragged off to execution, but does not seem either greatly relieved or greatly upset. After her father himself dies – depriving her of her one protector, the only relative who gave her any affection – she says, “I am overcome by grief,” but this flat statement is the only sign of it.
This novel will introduce younger readers to the bare facts of a very interesting life. They may wind up admiring Cleopatra as she earnestly endeavors to govern Egypt. But it’s hard to imagine them feeling the pull of her enduring, 2000-year-old charisma.