Lily of the Nile, by Stephanie Dray

Title: Lily of the Nile
Author: Stephanie Dray
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 351 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.25 stars

It’s difficult to read this book and not draw comparisons to Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter, which I reviewed back in March. Not only do they cover the same subject matter, they do so for almost exactly the same timeframe — from the death of the famous Cleopatra to just before her daughter’s wedding. Cleopatra Selene is taken to Rome, paraded in Augustus’s triumph, and forcibly adopted into the imperial family. She has to deal with adjusting to her new life and status, with her rebelliously inclined brother, with political threats and personal trials, and with the dubious legacy left to her by her parents. The story has the same basic shape in both books.

Dray definitely gives the story a new angle, though; she positions the life of Cleopatra Selene in relationship to the Cult of Isis. For most of the book, this is fascinating. It gives Selene a wonderful sense of mystery, something that marks her out from her surroundings and from the Roman attitudes she’s pressured to adopt, and I like that it’s a little bit brutal. Isis’s messages to Selene appear as bloody hieroglyphs, literally carved into Selene’s skin in moments of emotional distress. Faith isn’t easy or painless, and that’s definitely part of the message behind what Selene has to learn. The connection also has political implications, as Augustus accuses the Isiacs of plotting sedition against him, intending to make Selene and her less-compliant twin Helios the figureheads of a new rebellion. Selene learns how to plot and how to negotiate, striking deals with the loathed emperor in order to keep her people safe, even if it means personal sacrifice. The magic in the book is tangibly real, in a very religious way, and treated as such, which keeps the book from wandering into fantasy territory, and it definitely adds a new and exciting element to the story.

On the other hand, there are times when it definitely wanders into preachy territory. When Selene starts educating anyone else about the Isiac cult and sacred femininity, it sort of grinds the story to a halt, because the reader is then, too, getting lectured. It feels, at times, a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, only not quite as deftly handled (and MoA is itself far from flawless in that regard). Probably it makes me a bad pagan, but I have trouble enjoying those explications, especially when they stick out so awkwardly from the rest of the story.

Lily of the Nile is an inventive tale, and Dray fills out the gaps in Selene’s story admirably, expanding her life past the scraps that history hands down to us. She also makes some different choices regarding interpreting the historical record. The twins’ younger brother, Philadelphus, lives long past when most historians seem to think he probably died. One of Antony’s other sons, Iullus, gets a bit of stage time, and Antyllus gets a mention. Julia starts her love affairs early, and Octavia and Agrippa suffer unfulfilled passion for each other (and I have to wonder if HBO’s Rome inspired that bit of invention). I’m glad that Dray felt the freedom to play around with some of the historical question marks and ellipses. And yet, there was something that didn’t quite grab me as strongly as I’d hoped it would. I think it was that so many characters felt glanced at, rather than fully fleshed out. The imperial household had so many great personalities in it, but quite a few of them get rather short shrift, hardly mentioned at all, or downgraded to pretty two-dimensional characters. This is often a trouble in first person narratives, and it’s why I’ll take a good strong shifting-third any day of the week — but that’s down to personal preference. Since we only see what Selene sees and know what she knows, there’s a lot left missing from the rest of the story.

On that note, I have to make a confession of bias. Since I read the first few books Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (and would finish it if the last three would just come back into print), I sort of judge all books of ancient Rome by that standard — which is unfortunate, because next to that, most others tend to fall short of the mark. McCullough is not, I freely admit, to everyone’s taste, but she is to mine. I love a good panoptic — dozens of characters fleshed out, the history so vivid and vital you can feel it come to life around you, richly embroidered down to the last detail. Lily of the Nile, as with Moran’s books, is definitely lighter fare.

I did enjoy the read, despite some mixed feelings, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, which will actually follow Selene through her adult life as Queen of Mauretania. I’ve felt cheated out of that before, so it’s nice to know we’ll be getting the rest of the story from Dray.

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