Now that I’m looking back on my copy of this book, which I got in 1999 when it came out and I was precisely in the target range for these books: this cover illustration seems a little inappropriately seductive for 11-year-olds.
Cleopatra VII: Daughter of the Nile, Egypt, 57 BC., Kristiana Gregory, 1999.
A couple of things—I would have thought that Cleopatra would not be at the top of the list for a series about female rulers, given her sexualized legacy, but this is a series that also did Catherine the Great, so whatever. Given that, one of the places where the diary-style novel tends to fall down a little bit is when you’re depicting a culture where a diary is a little hard to swallow. So the premise here is that Cleopatra, at twelve, is writing on papyrus scrolls to record her days. I can live with that in the interest of writing a book set in 57 B.C.
Also, I know almost nothing about ancient Egypt (does this even qualify as ancient? See how little I know about this time period?) besides what you can glean from Wikipedia, so I have no idea whether any of this is accurate at all.
Cleopatra is the third daughter in the royal family, and her father, the Pharoah Ptolemy Auletes, is having some troubles. Someone has let a deadly snake loose in the palace and it’s killed his oldest friend and slave in its effort to kill him. It could be Tryphaena, Cleopatra’s eldest sister who really really really wants to be queen, or it could have been any number of others, since Ptolemy is not particularly well-liked among the Egyptians, as we will come to find out. So her father goes to hide from his would-be assassins, and Tryphaena takes over his rooms in the very first sign that she’s a Bad Egg.
Cleopatra’s personal maid, Neva, is her constant companion, as is her bodyguard Puzo, and the three of them go wandering around Alexandria in the disguise of common folks (so we can see that Cleopatra is interested in the common peoples, you see). She is free to do as she pleases, mostly, and goes to hang out at the Library of Alexandria with her other friends—Olympus, who wants to be a doctor, and Theophilus, who is going to become a rabbi. Olympus informs Cleopatra that there’s a plot afoot to assassinate her father and any other members of the royal family who happen to be handy, including her own self. Ptolemy’s idea to get ahead of the populace who hates him is to hire 10,000 Roman soldiers to put down any uprisings, and plans on going to Rome to ask.
Cleopatra is extremely anxious, to say the least, when she hears that she’s the target of some of these plots, and she’s relieved (and seasick) when she and her father leave for Rome by sea in March. (Martius. Whatever.) Her father was more than a bit surprised to find her going with him, but since he’s a sodden drunk, even he realizes that it would be helpful to have another pair of eyes there. He spends most of the trip either drunk or hung over, which doesn’t fill Cleopatra with confidence for the discussions with Rome. What also doesn’t help is that they learn while en route that Tryphaena has declared herself queen, since their father is fleeing to Rome. Oh good. This will end well. I seem to remember someone’s head gets lopped off in this novel?
You know what’s interesting about this book? I can’t think of a single other book in the entire Dear America/Canada/Royal Diaries/MNIA canon that deals with an alcoholic parent (and I have read every single book at least once), although I could be mistaken there. Anyway, while we’re stretching the realism involved here (would 12-year-olds, even royal ones, have a lot of patience for scratching out their every thought on a papyrus scroll using…Latin? I’m genuinely not sure here. About any of this. Wow, we are so far out of my wheelhouse on this one), Cleopatra wavers back and forth between being confident about being in charge and wishing her father would just step up and deal with this crap himself, and being proud of him and ashamed of him, and so on and so forth. It’s really nicely done without overdoing it.
Cleopatra and her father write to Tryphaena saying that they will submit to her as queen if she lets them live, and they continue onto Rome with stops in Malta and Sicily. But while she is reflecting on the best way to be a ruler, her father is busy reflecting on all the amazing banquets he’s been to in the past and all the super awesome parties they’ve had. And when they finally make landfall and row up the river to Rome, Cleopatra begins to think that maybe Rome isn’t all it’s cracked up to be—it’s a mix of beautiful homes and filthy graffiti and squalor. (Much like how the role of ruler is part pomp and drama and part boring scut work? Ah, so deep!)
They stay with a man named Atticus for a while, who holds a banquet in their honour and invites Pompey, the general. But Pompey is super rude to their faces, and is really astonished when Cleopatra can speak back to him in Latin and obviously understood every word he said. Pompey apologizes, and the banquet goes on nicely, but Cleopatra is pretty upset to see that her father is just as little respected there as he is at home. And then they get great news from home—Tryphaena is dead! Killed by their father’s friends! But then Berenice declares herself queen, which is no better. So they carry on with their original plan of gathering up Roman soldiers and heading back to Egypt, which is where Marc Antony enters the picture.
Hmm. I’ve always thought that Cleopatra is a little bit of a strange choice for a YA series, since her story in the popular imagination is all about sex and intrigue and affairs and all that, but this is a YA reimagining, of course. So there’s less sex and more innocent drama. But it’s weirdly played with in that Cleopatra is twelve and Marc Antony is twenty-six and she’s still going on about he’s charming and good-looking and all that. It’s weird! I’m not crazy about it! And even weirder is the fact that Cleopatra befriends Julia, who is married to Pompey, and Julia is just a little bit older than she is. I do get the realism here, but it’s still weird.
Anyway, while they’re there, Cleopatra also gets to experience some of Roman life, like visiting the theatre and watching gladiators and eating street food and such (so, pretty much like what I imagine living in New York to be like today, no?) but nothing really seems to help her dreary mood. She’s far from home, people may or may not be plotting to kill her, Rome is really gross and smelly in the summer, etc., so who can blame her? Even when she goes to Atticus’s summer villa on the shore, it doesn’t truly help. (Although I did enjoy the interlude about Roman graffiti: “These had made me smile. Titus has big arms. He is a heartthrob to young girls. Arcus is a maiden’s hero.” That is like, the most innocent and sanitized version of Roman graffiti I think I’ve ever heard of.
As the summer wears on, they’re still waiting for enough soldiers to create an effective force, but Cleopatra is bored and lonely. She also discovers that Puzo and Neva have fallen in love, which is against her father’s rules for the court, so she conspires with them to keep it a secret! Which is sweet and dangerous all at once. But time just drags on and soon it’s autumn and her father is just squandering away the time and not getting anything done.
Then we have a time skip ahead to February, because Cleopatra wrecks four months of scrolls in a rainstorm. But in the meantime she’s met Cicero, the lawyer, and Crassus, the “richest man in Rome.” (Caesar, if you’re wondering, is off conquering Gaul at this point.) Crassus is a dirtbag and Cicero is constantly in trouble for being a mean snarky bastard, and Caesar is Caesar, so basically it appears that Rome is run by horrible people. One day in the spring, Marc Antony takes Cleopatra for a chariot ride to the coast and back, which alleviates some of her worry, but still the fact remains that the soldiers are ready and now they’re just waiting for politics to clear up.
So they wait and wait for months and there’s another time skip to December, and they’ve now spent two full years in Rome just twiddling their thumbs. After some angry discussion with Cicero, in February things are finally finally finally cleared up and they’re able to leave in March. (But not until after Marc Antony kisses Cleopatra! She’s fourteen, he’s twenty-eight. I’m still creeped out by this.) They arrive in Alexandria and Berenice is all weepy and “oh I was just trying to heeeelp you!” and their father has her beheaded. (I did remember someone’s head getting taken off.)
So this means that Cleopatra is next in line to the throne behind her weak dad, and Olympus points out that she needs to have allies lined up in Rome if she wants to be successful as a ruler. And so she asks her father for a trip down the Nile, and he says yes but that when she returns he will begin to plan her wedding.
And that’s the end. The epilogue in Royal Diaries books is always kind of tricky, because any fool with Wikipedia can see what actually happened to the people. So you can see that Cleopatra married her younger brother (ew ew ew ew ew) and then later became Caesar’s lover, and then after he was assassinated she took up with Marc Antony instead. And then killed herself by allowing a snake to bite her.
Rating: B. I just don’t know about this book. It’s not that it’s poorly written (by far the contrast, Kristiana Gregory is great), it’s that the topic is so unusual for a YA audience. Like I said, Cleopatra’s story is so heavily known in our culture as one about sex and intrigue that it’s almost like this tack is….sanitizing it, a bit? But that takes away all of its power! I really think I would have preferred a story that took more bite into the way that Cleopatra’s father is mostly useless and she has to handle a lot of the work herself, without dragging in the “Marc Antony is so intriguing business.” But all in all, the writing is beautiful and there’s so much here to enjoy that I think it’s worth it anyways.