Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra & Mark Antony–the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, & when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she’s ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus’s household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies–until she reaches out to claim her own.
This stunning novel brings to life the personalities & passions of one of the greatest dramas in history, & offers a wonderful new heroine in Selene.
SPOILERS FOR BEGINNING AND ENDING
This was a well-realized historical fiction on a figure I’ve never seen given this much attention – Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius, the last Ptolemy rulers of Egypt before Octavianus (Augustus Caesar) conquered it in the name of the Roman Empire. The author vividly depicts both Alexandria and Rome, injecting details and facts without interrupting the flow of the story. In terms of constructing history and changes in narrative, there’s a lot of good stuff about how after Rome conquered Egypt, they simultaneously lambasted Egypt as a barbaric land while stealing and claiming for their own any parts of their culture and knowledge that they wanted. I really liked how the author dealt with the Roman portrayal of Cleopatra VII as a seductress and a whore, an image that endures to the present day. Rather than being honored as an intelligent, skilled leader who could speak multiple languages, she’s primarily remembered for her beauty and how she “seduced” and married two of the most powerful men in Rome – Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius.
I enjoyed Cleopatra Selene’s story. Although trouble starts brewing when she’s young and doesn’t understand what’s going on, she quickly learns the importance of asserting herself, and holds fast to the belief that she’s meant to be a great ruler, just like her mother. What I loved about this story is how Cleopatra Selene’s personal growth is not just about her identity as an Egyptian princess held hostage in Rome or as a woman whose destiny is controlled by the men around her, but primarily as a daughter attempting to follow in the footsteps of her mother. Since childhood, she’s looked up to her mother as the powerful and intelligent ruler that she is and strives to emulate her in every way, especially after her mother’s death. Cleopatra Selene continually works towards the goal that she might regain Egypt one day and rule as her mother did, even going so far as to mimic Cleopatra VII’s relationship with Julius Caesar with Marcellus, Octavianus’ heir, in the hope that she might build her own power base (I already knew this from my freshman humanities class, but Cleopatra’s Moon reminded me once again that Roman family trees were complicated). In the midst of her plans and all the other political maneuverings taking place, the real struggle is Cleopatra’s Selene’s as she strives to live up to her mother’s legacy while becoming her own person. This storyline was done exceedingly well, and I loved it.
This struggle is particularly embodied in the almost-love triangle the author sets up between Cleopatra Selene, Marcellus, and Juba, a captured prince from Numidia. However, the relationship between these three characters is more like an anti love triangle than anything else. Her interactions with them are primarily based on what political advantages they offer her and whether she’ll have any autonomy at all. There’s a great scene in which she flat-out refuses to “choose” either of them and instead proclaims she chooses power and freedom instead. Given that the YA fiction is currently saturated with love triangles in which the female protagonist inevitably ends up “choosing” one of the boys in the end, it’s really nice to see a book in which there’s a triangle, but the protagonist refuses to play by those rules. It’s historical fact that Cleopatra Selene marries Juba, but the author constructs her relationships with both Juba and Marcellus such that the element of choice is always present in whatever she does. And that was a pretty important theme throughout the book as well – the distinction between fate and free will and whether free will can exist simultaneously with fate.
The main quibble I have is that Cleopatra Selene’s twin, Alexandros, isn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked. This wouldn’t have been as much of a problem if the book hadn’t opened with Alexandros’ death. There needed to be more attention paid to the ways in which the two of them were supposed to be super close. As such, their lack of contact with each other, particularly when in Rome, left me cold to their relationship. Alexandros was supposed to be the antithesis of Cleopatra Selene – he believes there’s no hope of them ever leaving Rome or ruling Egypt – but it fell flat for me.
Cleopatra’s Moon is a great example of YA historical fiction. Cleopatra Selene is a compelling character and her story is told tightly and briskly. It maintains historical accuracy while exploring and filling in the gaps in her life with an engaging plausibility. It’s really tricky to balance all of these elements when writing historical fiction, but it works out excellently here. I recommend it.
Disclosure – library