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Stephanie Dray’s ‘Song of the Nile’ opens immediately where ‘Lily of the Nile’ left us. The wedding of Selene to Juba gives our strong heroine a chance to push at Augustus once more; a chance to remind him again of her mother Cleopatra. A dangerous game to engage in, yet necessary for Selene to advance her position to become a restored queen of Egypt, a reborn vessel of Isis. Augustus both threatens and promises her in a single breath: “Be my Cleopatra and one day your mother’s Egypt may be yours.” It is this tantalising promise to give Selene her desire that allows Augustus to control our heroine and forms the spine of the motive for the entire novel.
We begin with the transition from captive to queen, yet, within sixty pages our new Queen of Mauretania has her personal world torn apart as her new husband steps aside from the marriage bed and Augustus rapes her in a shocking scene. It is both this act and the subsequent incest between Helios and Selene that is dragged uncomfortably back to the reader’s senses throughout the remainder of the novel. The author chooses to linger on these two disturbing events in a manner that is, at the least, unpalatable with the promise of romance that lingers in the Berkeley book jacket. The attempt to shift dilute blame for the first act by implicating an evil within Livia, who advances her son Tiberius against any other contender for the imperial throne, does not soften the nature of the crime.
Against this politicking and brutal opening, Dray has us follow Selene as she travels to Mauretania with Juba to begin developing her skills as both monarch and diplomat. Selene is trying hard to assert herself in the patriarchal society of Rome’s empire; a theme neatly summed up by Juba when he tells her “Isn’t your mother’s example enough to teach you how disastrous it is when women involve themselves in politics?” This proves no dissuasion with our new Queen proving her political astuteness with acts such as naming the Mauritanian capital Iol-Caesaria, her backing of a new purple dye factory and her diplomacy between the aggressive Roman, Balbus and indignant Berber, Maysar. Against a background of reconciliation with Euphronius Selene develops her innate magical skills, her heka which culminates in a climactic scene a quarter of the way through the novel at the Temple of Tanit/Isis where the author takes us through a scene of high fantasy. Selene is “the goddess and he [Helios] was the golden god that overflows the Nile’s banks, cleansing the earth, filling the cracks in the soil with the seed of life…I could take him as my lover or cast him away. It was my choice. Mine. And I chose him.” Her alliances with the Berber tribes, her spiritual growth as a vessel of Isis, the birth of her daughter, Isidora, her uncertain and awkward relationship with her husband whom she holds partially responsible for Augustus’ crime – all of these are swept aside by the moral compass of the reader as Dray takes us into this fantasy of incest with the translocated Helios who is claimed killed at a Thebes sacked by Gallus
Yet this false idyll of Selene is soon gone as news of Augustus failing health finds her and she is summoned to Rome where Agrippa openly despises her, names her sorceress and her die is cast as she commences to bind herself ever more tightly to the man who violated her, the only man who can restore her to Egypt. Selene’s belief in her destiny, her need for restoration as a Ptolemy coupled with Augustus’ craving to be appreciated has the author constantly draw parallels to Cleopatra and Caesar, to Cleopatra and Anthony. The determination to repeat history yet change its outcome means Selene is heralded as the Sorceress of the Nile, the bringer of grain to a starving Rome. She is seeking to consolidate her tenuous hold over Augustus as he recovers his health but is cast into despair whilst at Baiae, at the death of Marcellus, Octavia’s son at same time as her own brother, Philadelphus. It is 23 B.C, eight years after Actium and Cleopatra’s daughter has lived a lifetime. She is not permitted time to grieve as Augustus bluntly tells her “You want Egypt…well I want you to give me a son.” It is a statement of intent that has Selene leave Rome that night and return to being a queen of Mauretania for the next two years. A time that sees her use her heka to bring bounty to her new land. This brief time of peace cannot last and she is summoned by Augusts to Samos with the rest of the Imperial entourage and many of the delegates of the empire’s client kingdoms to pay tribute. Augustus is politicking on a grand scale and it is Circe’s advice to Selene – that she find something to love in Augustus so she can carry out her plan of revenge – that finally leads her to find a way to manipulate the Emperor as he seeks to nullify the threat that is Parthia.
“Circe had advised me to find something in the emperor to love; his cunning, his persistence, his plodding determination all resonated deep within me. We were alike in so many ways it ought to have disturbed me.”
A game ensues with her promises to him, yet keeping him at bay as she seeks the surety of gaining Egypt. Amongst this Julia is re-married to Agrippa, Tiberius rises in prominence and then, to Selene’s utter joy, Helios appears as the captain of a ship. He is there to assassinate Augustus, but, while his target is away dealing with Parthia allows Dray to indulge in a romance that, despite the eloquence of language and purity of love expressed throughout, cannot escape the reality of incest. It is an episode that must end and does with the same despair as that of Aegolaus at the return of the Theseus’ sails. Selene is called to Athens and there, like in the first novel, the author has a dénouement between Selene, Augustus and Helios amongst flames and madness where the male brutality of the Roman world collides with the impassioned female spirituality of the Ptolemaic.
It is this theme that Dray continues in the second novel. Rome is patriarchal, blunt, harsh, uncompromising, terrifying and scheming. Augustus is portrayed as a master politician, a man weakened by a need to leave a legacy, a man who indulges in the unspeakable violation of Selene to achieve his desires. Selene, by contrast, epitomises all that is Isis. The wonders of female divinity, of fertility and bounty are given to her. It is her struggle of female light against the consuming male darkness of the emperor that is portrayed again and again throughout the novel.
Stephanie Dray writes well. The inevitability of cause and effect is skilfully portrayed amongst the characters and the growth of Selene from the first novel deftly handled. The Author’s Note explains much of the tweaks to the little historical fact we know of Selene and there is little to find fault with from a historical perspective. The Suetonian-esque vilification of Augustus is vital to explaining the story of Selene and the themes of male and female are powerfully drawn throughout. This is no historical romance but the story of a girl becoming a woman, a captive becoming a queen with all its dark undertones that cannot be hidden despite the glossy book cover. Stephanie Dray’s writing style matures in this second novel along with her heroine. At times this novel is a painting of emotively powerful descriptions, at others it is a bleak landscape in the difficult decisions that are made throughout by the main characters. This is a novel that disturbs this reader, yet keeps the pages turning as we followed the story of Selene Cleopatra as she fights to claim back her birthright, keep alive her mother’s memory, fulfil her obligations as a queen and the Chosen of Isis and be a mother when the world around her is unsettled.
Stephanie Dray writes well and the inevitability of cause and effect is skilfully portrayed.
Review by travelswithacanadian
8.5/10 from 1 reviews
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