Vicky Alvear Shecter
Arthur A. Levine Books: 368 pp., $18.99, ages 13 and up
Eyes ringed with kohl, her lithe body draped in a tunic, Cleopatra VII has been memorialized ad nauseam in numerous art forms, from paintings and opera to film and a seemingly endless string of books. The reason is simple: The last queen of Egypt was an exotic blend of power and beauty whose brief life came to a tragic end when she committed suicide with the help of an asp.
Now her only daughter, Cleopatra Selene, is getting the historical fiction treatment in a beautiful new novel for young adults, “Cleopatra’s Moon.” The book begins in the 17th year of her mother Cleopatra’s reign, when Cleopatra Selene and her twin brother, Alexandros, were just 7. The year is 34 BC, and Cleopatra Selene’s father, Mark Antony, has just dubbed his young daughter the queen of Cyrenaica and Crete.
The magic of this novel is that such an ancient, privileged life is told by the child as she’s living it. “Cleopatra’s Moon” puts a decidedly personal spin on history, spanning Cleopatra Selene’s childhood up to age 16 and filling in the blanks of a life that bears witness to the death of her parents, the fall of Egypt and her relocation, along with her two siblings, to Rome. There they are housed with the very enemy that forced them from their homeland.
There’s a decidedly feminist bent to Cleopatra Selene, who, in Vicky Alvear Shecter’s hands, is a lot like her mother. She’s beautiful, feisty, unbridled in her opinions — and determined to return to her native land. To Cleopatra Selene, Rome is an uncouth filth pit whose streets “reeked of urine, vomit and wine.” Its elite were more brutish than educated.
The lack of a public library in Rome takes on an emotional tenor that wouldn’t normally exist in a history book when the situation is viewed from Cleopatra Selene’s perspective. In Egypt, she often read the scrolls from her family’s personal library. Now those same scrolls have been stolen and relocated to Rome.
“Cleopatra’s Moon” is occasionally violent, but so was the era in which it takes place. Alvear Shecter wrote two nonfiction books for young adults about major personalities from the same general time and geographic area: “Alexander the Great Rocks the World” and “Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen.” Her knowledge of this time period and the forces that shaped it are more than evident in “Cleopatra’s Moon,” which effortlessly weaves in details of ancient life that make history come alive.
Cleopatra Selene takes us through the Egyptian belief system — her worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis and the mummification rites she performs. We learn about the jeweled spinning tops and carved ivory cats on wheels that pedigreed Egyptian children used as toys. And we’re introduced to exotic foods enjoyed by the upper class, dishes such as steamed flamingo tongue and roasted mouse. All of it is deftly incorporated into the action, as Cleopatra Selene plots her rightful return to the throne.
As a young adult book, “Cleopatra’s Moon” also includes, of course, romance. More specifically, there is the de rigueur love triangle, as Cleopatra Selene debates the political advantages of competing romantic alliances and her own pull toward true love.
Readers who want to know what’s real and what’s fabricated can look to the beginning and end of the book. Wisely, “Cleopatra’s Moon” opens with a character list and ends with four pages explaining “the facts within the fiction.” Alvear Shecter was clearly working with a skeletal history, which makes “Cleopatra’s Moon” all the more impressive in that it feels so real.