Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Lily of the Nile book cover
Rating 8.0/10
The novel will be well received by those who like Margaret George or Philippa Gregory.

“Where Egypt fed the world, Rome tamed it. Where Egypt fostered, Rome disciplined. Egypt was as seductive as a temptress, nurturing as a mother, and wise as a crone. To me, Rome’s spirit was all male.” So speaks Selene Ptolemy, daughter of Anthony and Cleopatra, from her gilded cage in the house of Octavia in Rome. So speaks the author as to the essence of her opening novel, of what will become a trilogy, where the fading light of Isis wars with the conquering darkness of Jupiter. A novel that seeks to drive home the understanding that “without Isis, people forget female divinity”.

Opening with the death of Cleopatra, the narration of her daughter Selene takes her twin Helios and younger brother Philadelphus back as a prize for Octavian’s Triumph. The Resurrection, as Selene names herself, is granted clemency as she begs life at Octavian’s knees just as blade splashes the bright blood of the Prince of Emesa in her defence. So ends her life as the Ptolemaic daughter of Egypt and begins her chafing servitude under Octavian’s cold tutelage for his own political advancement.  As his sister Octavia explains: “Love causes pain, but good marriages benefit the state. It’s your central purpose and duty.”

We follow the intrigues of Rome’s new princeps as he seeks to establish, like all despots, a lineage and an image that will ensure his immortality. Octavian (or Augustus as he becomes in the novel and history) is portrayed - as Suetonius would have us believe – by Stephanie Dray as cold, unemotional, direct, calculating, and brutal. He, and the sketch of Agrippa who is seen as a drunken boor doing his marital “duty” by Marcella, is the primary foil of male darkness against the enlightened, mystical truth of female light given breath in Selene.

We are told nothing of Rome, nothing of the political scene of empire building. Helios’ escape and subsequent lead in the riots in Rome, the unrest in Alexandria, the declaration of Thebes to have him as their King at the end of the novel all take place away from the strangely safe world of Octavia’s cage for her daughter Julia, Iullus and Marcellus and the world of Octavian’s wife Livia and the handsome Juba who Octavian demands marry Selene. It is this very artificiality that allows the author to have our narrator develop her warring mind as Chosen of Isis, of a child taken from her homeland, from her murdered parents, and struggle to become a queen and a totemic leader of the persecuted Isiacs. With Cleopatra’s ghost taunting Octavian by cutting bleeding hieroglyphics into her daughter’s arms we follow Selene as she displays a political maturity beyond her years in the light of her brother’s barely contained rage against his fetters and the constant whisper of the Priest of Isis and one-time tutor, Euphronius. Meetings with Virgil, uncertainty over the friendship of the slave Chryssa, and the constant play with Livia, Octavia and Juba eventually lead to Selene manipulating Octavian as, “one of my brothers lay dying of fever and the other would soon be crushed by the might of Rome’s legions.”

Selene whirls out in a magicks of winds to a dénouement in the Temple of Venus Genetrix that has Octavian demand she marry Juba, denounce Helios; all of which she agrees to in return for being named Queen of Mauretania, consort in Numidia. It is with this small victory of sorts, this rebalancing of power, this asserting of her birthright that Bray leaves us for her second novel.

The novel will be well received by those who like Margaret George or Philippa Gregory. The style is very much focused on relationships within a tight circle of no more than ten. Everything else around pales into a muffled background. Whilst this means the reader comes to intimately sympathize with the fates of the caged children, the context of Rome becomes no more than ventures into popular Hollywood. Images of Elizabeth Burton come unbidden, gladiatorial combat painted in by Russell Crowe or Charlton Heston fill the roaring gaps so desperately needed when the reader needs action rather than conversation to accelerate the pulse.

The author chooses to tell her story through the melody of relationships rather than the cadences of action. Yet, strangely, it is Octavian who perhaps cuts through the incessant need to opine and discuss, to unravel relationships and indulge in the strange world of the super powerful that so dominate this novel when he simply explains that: “We fight for the world. A war to determine all – which ideologies dominate and which gods survive.” It is this that lies at the heart of the novel. Not the marriages and shenanigans of those who crave power; nor even the indignant sense of justice and superiority of a fourteen year old princess… rather the reality of ideology that snares the millions of citizens, be they of Rome or Egypt, whose lives are given no thought by those who would control them yet feel they must be given absolute respect. Whilst this novel sets male against female on several ideological levels, it is the understanding that we must all work together for the good of all that slowly begins to seep into the consciousness of narrator and results, perhaps, in a softening of our strictly drawn opinions of the major characters.

I started this novel slowly, struggling to find the page turning quality that we so demand today; yet, by the end, I appreciated the quality of prose, the creeping curiosity of how Selene struggles to change, to adapt, whilst her brother gives into the power of his emotions and beliefs. As twins they are similar, yet utterly unalike in their understanding of how to gain what they most desire, most believe. It will be interesting to see how the author takes us forward with Selene and Helios as they struggle for recognition in the shadow of Octavian’s Rome.

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from Australia

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I loved this book, can't wait to read the second.

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