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Song of the Nile (Cleopatra's Daughter Trilogy) Paperback – October 4, 2011
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"A Striking Sequel." --San Francisco Book Review
"Historical women's fiction at its finest." --History and Women
"[Dray] is now solidly on my (very short) list of favorite historical fiction writers." --Small Review
"A magnificent novel with a magical twist!" --Fresh Fiction
About the Author
Stephanie Dray is a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of historical women’s fiction. Her award-winning novels include America's First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton, co-authored with Laura Kamoie, and the Cleopatra’s Daughter Trilogy. Her work has been translated into eight languages and often tops lists for the most-anticipated reads of the year. Before she became a novelist, she was a lawyer and a teacher. Now she lives near the nation's capital with her husband, cats, and history books.
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I would like to say that it would be important for the author to include a trigger warning because the book includes
*SPOILER* a rape scene.
*SPOILER* And not sure how I feel about war times being so rough that the best and healthiest sexual partner you have is your twin brother?
I like how the book includes discussion questions at the end and feel like it would be important to include discussions about sexual violence that Selene experienced! I think it would have been helpful for readers who have survived sexual violence in assistance to their healing if the book triggers it. Just a little bit more care. :)
Also does anyone know where the author researched her information on Egyptian goddess spirituality?
Oh other things I liked but were slightly disturbing. The process of cultural brutality, assimilation, and the various forms it takes after trauma and violence. Many of the characters had complex stories on how they handled those events which I thought was beautiful in it's diversity even though at times it was so sad and tragic.
There could be more to say but those are some heads up if you are considering reading the book. It has a bittersweetness with an emphasis on the bitter for this particular reader.
Born along with a twin brother, Alexander Helios, in 40 B.C., she and her twin, along with their younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus were captured by Caesar Octavian after the battle of Actium in 30 B.C. and brought to Rome in chains to march in Octavian's triumph. Their older brother Caesarian, said to be Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, was executed at the order of Octavian. Octavian took pity on the children of Marc Anthony and turned them over to his sister Octavia, to be raised in her household.
As Song of the Nile opens, Cleopatra Selene is fourteen years and is being married off to Juba of Mauritania, who is about to be set up as a client king in his native land by Octavian, who is now known as Augustus. Selene's brother Alexander Helios has disappeared and she has no idea where he is or whether he still lives. Selene is to be Queen of Mauritania, but what she really wants is to take her mother's place as Pharaoh of Egypt. She is aware of Augustus' obsession with her and she determines that she will use this obsession to gain her political ends. At her wedding she costumes herself in a way that provokes the emperor's lust.
Dray's Cleopatra Selene is a person in constant internal conflict. She hates Augustus for what he has done for her family, but at the same time she is grateful to him for sparing her life and for his generosity to her, and he is the only one with the power to grant her dearest wish-to be Queen of Egypt, so she feels that she must play his game. For his part, Augustus has a lustful obsession with Selene and at the same time fears her powers of sorcery.
Her twin brother Alexander Helios show up in Mauritania and she is madly in love with him, a love sanctioned in her mind by the Ptolemaic tradition of brother-sister marriage. It is never clear whether the child she bears, Cleopatra Isadora, is the get of Augustus or of Alexander Helios. Her twin brother is determined to avenge their parents and cause as much trouble for Augustus as possible. He renames himself Horus the Avenger and becomes adviser to the Kandake of Meroe, the queen of a kingdom to the south of Egypt, when she invades Egypt.
In the long run Selene must decide if being Queen of Egypt is worth the price she must pay. Song of the Nile is a complex and absorbing novel with many delightful twists and turns.
Song of the Nile begins with a prologue that refers to the myth of Persephone's descent, and so we know from the start that this book will take Selene into some painful emotional territory. There are two elements here that may trouble some readers, so I'll get those out of the way while also saying that, in my opinion, they are handled well and are not gratuitous.
The first of these is a rape. It's strongly foreshadowed before it happens, and it's completely in character for the perpetrator, Octavian, as Dray has developed him. It's also, thankfully, not written in a titillating style at all. Selene goes through a believable period of self-doubt and then finds her anger, realizing that he broke a basic rule of civilized behavior and that he was wrong to blame her and her attire for the assault. Further complicating the situation is that he has so much power over Selene politically that it's impossible to escape his orbit, and he's also the only one who can grant Selene the thing she most wants.
The second unsettling element is incest. Selene's brother Helios reappears at several points in the story and a sexual relationship develops between the two. Or does it? These scenes are written with a great deal of ambiguity, to the point that I suspect they're dream sequences. A literal reading is plausible, but I'm more inclined to think the Helios of this book (as opposed to the one she grew up with in book one) is kind of an animus figure for her, onto whom she has projected desires she doesn't dare indulge: the desire to defy Rome and the desire to have sex and love without political calculation. Or, to use Selene's own metaphor, he's her khaibit, the shadow where she hides these unwanted feelings.
Hopefully I haven't scared you off yet, because Song of the Nile is a very good book, and a beautifully written one. It begins with Selene's wedding to Juba, whom Octavian has named king of Mauretania. Selene and her new husband were friends once, but bitterness has arisen between them, and the marriage gets off to a disastrous start. It's heartbreaking to read, because there are so many moments where they almost reach a truce, and then both characters' anger and pride get in the way and make a mess of things yet again. We root for them to get it right, even as they get it wrong again and again. Meanwhile, Selene learns how to be a competent ruler, becomes a mother, and gets more in touch with her magical connection to Isis than ever before.
But as mentioned above, Selene can't avoid Rome and Octavian for long. She sees a chance to regain Egypt for herself and her family, but it means returning to the political games of Octavian, this time with the previous trauma adding further pain to the experience. Selene must decide what she is willing to give up to achieve the goal she has cherished since childhood.
Song of the Nile moves a bit more slowly than Lily of the Nile, simply because there's a large amount of waiting built into the plot. It can be frustrating, too, because during this wait Selene is trying to screw up her courage to do something that we readers don't want her to do anyway, so it can make us want to shout at her through the pages even though it's great character development. This isn't just a descent story in terms of what others do to Selene, but also in terms of Selene potentially becoming a more "gray" character herself. And she has to reach this nadir, I think, to get to the epiphany she has at the climax.
This epiphany, when it comes, is wonderful, requires a heavy sacrifice from Selene, and fits fantastically well with the mythological themes that have been worked into the series from the very beginning. As for the ending, if Song of the Nile were the last book, I'd want to see Dray expand upon it. But another book is in the works, so I'm fine with this ending as it is. It may not be full daybreak yet, but we can see the sky lightening after the darkness that has gone before.
After the end of the novel, Dray includes substantial author's notes in which she explains what's real, what's made up, and why she made the authorial decisions she did. For history geeks, this afterword is nearly as fascinating as the novel itself!
Song of the Nile is a worthy follow-up to Lily of the Nile and will be an addictive read for historical fiction and historical fantasy fans, as long as you're not put off by the use of some dark themes. As for me, I'll be first in line when book three hits the shelves.