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Book Review: PHARAOH - Karen Essex

Warner Books, 2002, $24.95/C$34.95 (£18.99), 406 pp, hb, ISBN 0446530255

by Pat Maynard
-originally published in The Historical Novels Review Magazine of the Historical Novel Society (HNS)

The name Kleopatra (Greek spelling) conjures up a multitude of images in our mind's eye, and Karen Essex's two excellent novels (the first, entitled Kleopatra) about this enigmatic queen, Egypt's last pharaoh, give many thought provoking insights into this controversial woman's life and times.

In Pharaoh Kleopatra allies with Julius Caesar, both personally and professionally, in hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Her younger brother has usurped her throne, and she needs Caesar's strength to regain it. At the same time, she also hopes to influence Caesar to loosen Rome's ever-tightening grip on her country so that she can resume her reign from a cooperative rather than an adversarial position. Her hopes are realized during Caesar's lifetime but when he is brutally murdered, Kleopatra finds herself and her beloved country again threatened by Rome and its new ruler, Octavian. Kleopatra then allies herself with Mark Antony, who eventually becomes the greatest love of her life. Together they attempt to neutralize the new threat posed by Octavian; ultimately to both their sorrows.

Essex depicts Kleopatra as a highly intelligent, politically savvy woman rather than a conniving femme fatale who conveys sexual favors on Rome's two most powerful men for her own selfish ends, as history has so often painted her. Interestingly and convincingly, the author portrays Kleopatra as a monarch with a Graeco-Roman vision rather than as one desiring to conquer Rome. In-depth research and compelling writing. Highly recommended.


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