Second in Holleman’s series about the last of the pharaohs that began with Cleopatra's Shadows (2015).
Now that Cleopatra's sister Berenice has been deposed and beheaded, Ptolemy the Piper, their father, backed by a few Roman legions, has reclaimed the throne, but not for long. As the terminally ill king lingers overlong, Cleopatra, spurred on by younger sister Arsinoe, age 15, hastens matters with a dose of hemlock. The Piper’s will provides that his son, 11-year-old Prince Ptolemy, will rule jointly with Cleopatra. (Tradition also dictates that brother and sister marry, and a purely ceremonial wedding ensues.) In chapters headed “Brother” and “Sister,” Ptolemy and Arsinoe alternate points of view, sharing the conflicted perspectives of younger siblings torn between succumbing to Cleopatra’s charisma and wanting to kill her. Cleopatra and Ptolemy plot to depose each other, both raising armies, and Arsinoe throws in her lot, serially, with each. Ptolemy heeds some bad advice to greet Pompey’s proffered alliance by beheading that Roman general, hoping to win Pompey’s rival, the more powerful Julius Caesar, to his side. This tactic backfires, though, when Cleopatra beats Ptolemy to a meeting with Caesar and soon has Rome’s wiliest commander and best-known seducer in her thrall. Ptolemy finds himself confined to quarters when his plot to poison Caesar is discovered thanks to leaked pillow talk. With Caesar’s backing, Cleopatra is on track to rule alone, but Ptolemy and Arsinoe, each surrounded by cabals of scheming courtiers, still have many tricks up their respective sleeves. On vivid display here are the paradoxical politics of a monarchy pitted against, and propped up by, a foreign imperialistic juggernaut. (The Ptolemaic dynasty itself, as Holleman’s many ironic observations make clear, was founded by conquering Greeks.) Holleman's poetic language contributes to the atmosphere of intrigue and menace, expertly capturing the roiling anxieties of the principals as they battle for Rome’s scraps.
Holleman’s gift of characterization will have readers rooting for all three Egyptian royals, hoping against historical fact that this sibling rivalry has no losers—at least not until the next installment.