Charmian and Iras are half-sisters and handmaidens to Cleopatra, one of the most powerful women in the ancient world. Through Charmian’s eyes, we journey through Cleopatra’s life, from when she was a child right through to her death. This journey takes us throughout Ancient Egypt to the developing Roman Empire, meeting Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, the pharaohs and the gods themselves. Yet this is a journey that Charmian has taken before, in a different lifetime, with others whose lives are touched by the gods. It is to the gods alone that she must answer in the hour of reckoning.
‘Hand Of Isis’ by Jo Graham was a fascinating read. It takes a really interesting period in our history and adds a mythical twist to raise it to a level above the usual historical novel. As far as I can tell from my limited knowledge and research of the period, the book remains fairly true to real history, so as well as being an entertaining read it is also an educating one. The descriptions are vivid and it is a book that really transports you to another time and place, something I really value in a fantasy novel.
It is described as a fantasy novel, but I suspect that fans of historical fiction would also enjoy this. The fantasy element is largely limited to talk of reincarnation and conversations with the gods and this doesn’t intrude too much on the historical narrative. Charmian has experienced all the momentous moments in life before in a previous incarnation, with different companions whose lives are all influenced directly by the gods. It is a long time since I read Jo Graham’s earlier novel, ‘Black Ships’ (also a good read), but I believe that some of the references to previous lives reflect events in that book, as well as the book following ‘Hand Of Isis’. The three books are described as a trilogy but the loose connections make ‘Hand Of Isis’ and ‘Black Ships’ two novels that stand alone very easily.
I really like Jo Graham’s writing style. She manages to convey the atmosphere of a place superbly, so that you can really become immersed in the worlds she is describing. It’s also very down to earth, by which I mean that she doesn’t spend time artificially creating atmospheres of suspense or foreboding, but tells the story simply and lets the events provoke their own reactions. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that the events in ‘Hand Of Isis’ are familiar to many people and so don’t need building up, but I still appreciate the simple approach to storytelling and am glad that the author doesn’t over-dramatise.
‘Hand Of Isis’ is a story about Cleopatra and her rise to power, but it is also the story of the city of Alexandria and all the normal people who live there. The less prominent characters, who are as well formed as the main characters, allow us to experience life in Alexandria. We are taken to see plays, to consider with awe the great library of Alexandria, to experience the religious and sexual freedoms afforded to its citizens (it is not shy about bisexuality and having multiple partners, but never gets too graphic) and to marvel at the great tomb of Alexander himself. ‘Hand Of Isis’ has put Alexandria right at the top of my ‘places to visit when I get a time machine’ list and I suspect that in the near future you’ll find me in the history section of my local library trying to learn more about it.
‘Hand Of Isis’ is a beautifully atmospheric book that takes you back to the days of Cleopatra, to the great city of Alexandria and the politics of the Roman Empire. An excellent read if you enjoy being transported to a different day and age, with solid characters and a fictionalised version of some fascinating historical events.
(pub: Orbit. 494 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-700-6)
check out website: www.orbitbooks.net