Hand of Isis
Following her critically acclaimed debut Black Ships, Jo Graham returns to the ancient world she depicts so well in Hand of Isis, an inventive recounting of the life of Cleopatra, Egypt’s last and most glamorous pharaoh.
Infamous for her love affairs and tragic death, Cleopatra’s story is by now a familiar one and it’s never easy to find a new way to approach her. Graham does not make the mistake of trying. Eschewing the lurid legend, she presents us instead with a historically accurate Cleopatra— the Ptolemy of Greek descent who adopted Egypt in all its guises and transformed herself into the incarnation of the goddess Isis. And she narrates the rise and fall of this charismatic queen through Charmian, Cleopatra’s half-sister and handmaiden, whose prophetic abilities give the novel its fantastical edge. Unfettered by the need to wed and devoted to the service of her pharaoh sister, Charmian’s sage voice guides us into an intoxicating world of science, magic, and intrigue, a place where gods exert influence upon mortals and the struggle to save Egypt is overshadowed by Rome’s rapacity.
Charmian’s forthright approach to love and her bond with her best friend, the unapologetically homosexual Dion, are refreshing; Graham is at her best when depicting the moral and philosophical beliefs of a time that in many ways feels more progressive than our own. While she plays it safe with Cleopatra, depriving the queen of some of her sexual allure in favor of an iron-willed determination, Graham lets Charmian roam the mosaic-paved courts of Rome and Egypt with an uninhibited curiosity and exuberance for life that proves infectious, and, in the final pages, catches at our hearts when we least expect it.