Livia sat forward and fixed me in her gaze. "My father committed suicide because of your father. And now your father has killed himself because of my husband. It's a strange little world, isn't it, Selene? And I imagine that when your mother came to Rome, she thought it would be only a matter of time before she stood in the Senate and declared herself queen. But Romans don't accept women who paint their faces, or dress themselves in beads, or swim in rivers. And they won't accept a little whore from Alexandria who thinks she can come here and take her mother's place. I know what you want." She laughed bitterly. "You think my husband is going to send you back to Egypt, but the Greeks will be settling their debts on the Kalends before that ever happens!" In Rome, the Kalends was the first day of every month, but the Greeks had no such day.
When Livia sat back, Octavia smiled. "Charming as always, Livia. And every afternoon a sweet reminder of why my brother chose you for his wife." (from Cleopatra's Daughter, pages 139-140)
Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran honestly is the best book I've read this year. (And I've read a lot of good books since January.) As you can tell from this passage, Moran has a way of bringing history to life. Despite the contemporary writing style, readers will not forget they have traveled to ancient Rome around 31 B.C. during the reign of Octavian (later known as Augustus).
Moran tells the story of Kleopatra Selene, twin sister of Alexander Helios and daughter of Kleopatra VII and Marc Antony. Kleopatra and Marc Antony are defeated in 31 B.C. by Octavian and his military adviser Marcus Agrippa, and both commit suicide. Selene, only 10 years old but highly educated and wise beyond her years, is devastated. She and her brothers, Alexander and Ptolemy, are taken by Octavian to Rome, where they will be paraded through the streets as part of the victory celebration. Selene is worried that Octavian plans to have them killed, but after she and Alexander settle in Rome, their lives take on a routine of school and other pursuits. Selene and Alexander are taken in by Octavia, the sister of Octavian and one of their father's wives before Kleopatra. Octavia becomes sort of a mother to the twins, and her son and Octavian's heir, Marcellus, becomes their closest friend -- and despite the fact that he is betrothed to Octavian's daughter, Julia, Selene develops a crush on him. Julia, as well as Octavia's slave, Gallia, who handles their clothing and accompanies them on their trips around Rome, also become close friends of the twins.
There is a lot going on in Cleopatra's Daughter, and I'm afraid I can't do the book justice. The twins are always under the watchful eye of Octavian, his bodyguard, Juba -- who was a child when his father's kingdom was defeated and came to live in Rome under circumstances similar to that of Selene's -- and others close to the emperor. As they wait to turn 15, when Octavian likely will marry them off, the twins try to make themselves useful, and Selene's sketches turn into an apprenticeship under the architect Vitruvius. Selene and Alexander face the hatred of Octavian's mean and bitter wife, Livia. Slavery also is a major topic in Cleopatra's Daughter, as a rebel known as "The Red Eagle" takes steps to free slaves and encourages uprisings. The search for The Red Eagle consumes must of Octavian's time and energy, and his activities arouse the curiosity of the twins and their new friends.
Selene is a wonderfully written character, and as the book is told from her point of view, readers come to know a lot about her. She is strong, fiercly loyal to her country, intelligent, and free-spirited. She does not collapse when the rest of her world comes down around her, and even in the midst of crippling grief, it is obvious she is a survivor.
Moran clearly did her homework -- her descriptions of the architecture, academics, culture, clothing, food, and mannerisms of ancient Rome and Egypt bring the setting and the characters to life. (A glossary at the back of the book helps readers keep things straight.) She has visited the lands of which she writes, and she has the ability to provide numerous historical details without interrupting the flow of the narrative. Moran brilliantly constructs complex plots without making the story difficult to follow. I can't say enough good things about Moran's writing. I absolutely loved her previous novels, Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, and Cleopatra's Daughter exceeded my already high expectations. Even if you don't prefer historical fiction about ancient Rome or Egypt, I recommend these books. I wasn't sure I would like Nefertiti because ancient Egypt never really interested me, but I found myself glued to the book after reading only a few pages -- and the next two books were even better. The books were so captivating, I even did some research of my own about the historical figures featured within their pages. I highly recommend all three, but Cleopatra's Daughter is my favorite of Moran's books so far.
Read an excerpt of Cleopatra's Daughter here, and then get your hands on a copy!
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Cleopatra's Daughter from Michelle Moran and Random House/Crown for review purposes.