My October Symphony

At this point in the summer, the cool warmth of October seems a distant futuristic dream. It’s always that way in August, and I no longer have Southern Decadence to look forward to; and haven’t in years. There’s no Decadence this year, of course, thanks to the pandemic, but I have also not participated in the madness of wild partying over the course of that weekend in over a decade. My participation has been primarily limited to passing out condoms on Friday night before escaping to the deep cool of my air conditioned home for the rest of the long weekend.

But my, did I used to have a great time during Southern Decadence! (See: Bourbon Street Blues.)

We started watching Babylon Berlin last night, at long last, and are already quite mesmerized. It’s a fascinating period–pre-Nazi/post first war Berlin was quite decadent, if you believe freedom from repression of all kinds is decadent. I’ve read very little about this period, although I have read Isherwood and of course I’ve seen Cabaret about a million times, but other than as a prologue to the rise of Hitler and Nazism in histories of the second World War, I’ve not really read a lot about that period of Germany’s past; certainly not anything that goes to any great depth. I also have a copy of the book somewhere; I’ve always meant to get to it as well as other books set in Europe during the same period. I don’t read nearly as much historical fiction anymore as I used to, or as much as I would like; I’m not really sure why that is. I love to read, I love to write, and I love history, so one would think art forms that combine those things would be something I would be all over, and yet–I’ve written precisely two short stories set in the past, and not even that distant. “The Weight of a Feather” is set in the 1950’s during the gay purge of the government, and of course, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (which might be my favorite title of anything I’ve ever written), is set in 1915 or thereabouts; a nebulous period of time during which the Great War was raging in Europe but the United States had yet to get involved. I have some things in progress that are historicals, or period pieces, or whatever may have you; the one I am really itching to sink my teeth into is a story set in Black Death era Rome, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap.” But I really need to be focusing as much creative energy on Bury Me in Shadows as I can right now, and so everything else isn’t going to get any real attention for the next few weeks or so. My plan is to, of course, do my day job to the best of my abilities, try to keep treading water as far as emails and everything else is concerned, and focus as much as possible on the manuscript. It’s in decent shape but very rough; the skeleton is there, but there are bones that need to be removed and replaced, others that simply need to be reset, and I also somehow have to manage a soul-transplant; replacing the one I originally created for the book with a completely new one–and these are all tricky things to manage that will require focus and energy.

And of course, one of the best things for stoking my creativity is to read really good writing, and I have Blacktop Wasteland to not only read and savor, but take inspiration from as well.

Then again, you never know.

We also finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was really quite lovely; I’m not certain that I want to read the book now, but I might. I’m not a huge reader of true crime–which doesn’t, when you think about it, make a lot of sense–and there’s so much else for me to read that I am behind on–oy, the ever-growing TBR pile in my house is as out of control as kudzu in rural Alabama–but I know I really need to start reading more of it. I think one of the main reasons I avoid it is fear that I’ll want to adapt it into fiction–just as Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou sort of inspired what might eventually become another Chanse novel–and I’m not really all that interested in serial killers or rapists, if I’m going to be completely honest. I’ve toyed with the idea for a serial killer novel for quite some time now–and it has occurred to me that setting it in the past, when people weren’t quite as aware of them as we are now and before the creation of profilers (although I wanted to include a profiler who was wrong about everything in this one) might be a better way to go with it–but I’m not really sure I am the right person to write such a book.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

What Have I Done to Deserve This?

It’s Saturday, and how lovely that feeling is. I am going to try to avoid social media as well as email interactions this weekend, as I want to be productive and I really don’t need any help with getting distracted. I was a condom packing machine yesterday, and Scooter was happily cuddled up to my feet as I had my lap desk and was working. I finally came up with the working system for maximum efficiency, and ultimately I was able to double my productivity in the same amount of time, which was quite impressive. It had been bothering me that I wasn’t as fast at home as I was at the office–or rather, in my old office on Frenchmen Street–but I also didn’t have the proper set-up until yesterday. I also had taken some time on Thursday to fold inserts, which also sped up my time yesterday. I also watched this week’s Real Housewives episodes, rewatched “The Bells” episode of Game of Thrones season eight (it’s quite a spectacle; more on that later) and then Dangerous Liaisons and The Maltese Falcon on the TCM menu on HBO MAX (which I love; there’s so much excellent film on that menu–things I want to rewatch and things I’ve always wanted to see). After dinner we finished off watching Into the Night, which had a lovely cliffhanger, and then started a Mexican Netflix drama, Control Z, which is quite intense. I do have to run an errand today, and I do have to spend some time cleaning out my email inbox–it’s ridiculously out of control again (doesn’t take long!)–and then I am going to reread Bury Me in Shadows and make notes on what to keep and what has to change. I’d also like to spend some time with “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” but there’s only so much time in one day and I only have so much attention span, really.

It’s gloomy and overcast out there this morning; we’re expecting rain off and on for most of the weekend because of now-Hurricane Hannah. I slept fairly decently most of the night, but still woke up feeling a little tired this morning. As much as I would like to be lazy for the day–and really, rereading a manuscript is the epitome of lazy, since I’ll be doing it in my easy chair–but it’s quite interesting and sort of amazing how much of a difference a good night’s sleep makes in my productivity when it comes to writing. The more tired I am, the more snappish I become–so it’s always a good idea to not be on social media or answer emails, as little things really get under my skin when I’m in that condition–but hopefully that won’t be an issue this evening. We shall see, I suppose.

I’m not really sure why I got the bug in my ear to rewatch that episode of Game of Thrones–it’s really amazing, given what a cultural phenomenon the show was while it was airing, how little anyone talks about it anymore. I think this is primarily due to the enormous disappointment the majority of viewers felt with its conclusion, and I certainly can’t disagree with those disappointed feelings. I, too, wasn’t terribly pleased with how the show ended, but at the same time, I wasn’t expected this world–which mirrored actual history with all its gore and good-doesn’t-always-win and evil-sometimes-goes-unpunished reality–to come to a happy ending; although Sansa did wind up as Queen of the North, so at least there’s some sense of justice in that, after everything she went through. And with her red hair, and all the suffering she endured, an argument could be made that she was sort of based on Queen Elizabeth I–who against incredible odds and twenty-five years of living in the shadow of the executioner–finally climbed to the throne. But I want to talk more about “The Bells” and the sack of King’s Landing–which was another episode that had fans disappointed and outraged. I was one of the few fans who was all about the city being destroyed; and I was also really pleased that they showed it from the ground for the most part–with Daenarys and Drogon only seen from below as the city burns and people die. It was exactly how I imagined the sacking of cities throughout history to look–rape and murder, blood in the streets, pillaging, hysterical terrified crowds running for their lives and praying for sanctuary as their world collapses around them. Conquerers never showed mercy; the concept everyone was hoping for that to happen once the bells were rung is very modern. Cities have historically been subject to such sackings throughout history; maybe not with a dragon involved, but read accounts of the many times Rome fell, or the fall of Constantinople–this wasn’t a modern world by any means, and modern concepts of justice and mercy weren’t in play. Cersei herself said it in Season One: “when you play the game of thrones, you either win or you die.” She played, she died, and she took her capital city with her. Power politics in medieval history–the closest proximation to the world of Game of Thrones–were bloody and cruel and merciless, and the Popes and the Church were just as involved and as ruthless as any king or emperor. Arya even alluded to this when she was wearing the face of Walder Frey and wiping out his entire house: “You didn’t kill all of the Starks. You should have ripped them out, root and stem. Leave one wolf alive and the sheep are never safe.” Ergo–if you don’t kill all of your enemies, you have no one but yourself to blame when they kill you.

Dangerous Liaisons is a great movie, and a great story as well. When the film came out, I bought a copy of the novel and was enthralled by the petty games of seduction and revenge that played out in its pages. (I didn’t see the film until years later, when I rented the video; I’ve seen both the Glenn Close version and the Annette Bening, Valmont; and of course the modern day remake with Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar, Cruel Intentions. There was an earlier, modern day version made in the 1960’s I’ve not seen; it’s in French and I’ve always wanted to see it.) The novel is exceptional; originally published (and banned) in France in 1782, it was quite a cause celebre at the time; depicting the immorality and debauchery of the aristocratic class, it has sometimes been described as being one of the initial steps on the road to revolution in 1789. It’s an epistolary novel; you are reading the letters the characters all write to one another, so you see how the Marquise and the Vicomte are playing with their innocent, naive friends and relatives quite well. They are only honest with each other–although, of course, in this modern age the lesson I took from it was never put anything in writing, which is just as true today as it was then–and I had always wanted to do a modern, gay version. I eventually did, with Wicked Frat Boy Ways, but while I am proud of the book I also wish I could redo it some, revise and add to it more.

The film is extraordinary, and Glenn Close was certainly robbed–as she has been many times–of the Oscar for Best Actress.

As for The Maltese Falcon, it’s still a great movie, but I didn’t finish watching–and would prefer to rewatch when I can give it my full attention. It really is marvelously written, acted, directed, and filmed. I should probably reread the novel someday.

And on that note, I am going to dive back into the spice mines. The kitchen and living room are both a mess; I have errands to run, and of course, that manuscript to read. Have a lovely, safe Saturday, Constant Reader, and I will see you tomorrow.

Walking the Floor Over You

I have always loved to read, and have always encouraged other people to read. It’s one of the great pleasures of my life, for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I never stopped reading. I will probably never stop reading. There are fewer non-sexual pleasures in life as satisfying as reading a good book.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother got me really started into watching old movies–both horror and crime–and also encouraged me to read. She was the one who got me started reading Mary Stewart, by giving me her copy of The Ivy Tree; my friend Felicia in high school reminded me of Stewart and so I started reading more of her work. (I still have not read all of Mary Stewart’s work–that “I don’t ever want to run out of something new to read by Mary Stewart” thing I do) And while I enjoyed all of them, I enjoyed some more than others. For example, i remember reading The Moon-spinners, but not really enjoying it very much, frankly. I never revisited the book…but now that I am doing the Reread Project, I decided to give it another read.

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It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it. I won’t pretend I saw it straight away as the conventional herald of adventure, the white stag of the fairytale, which, bounding from the enchanted thicket, entices the prince away from his followers and loses him in the forest where danger threatens with the dusk. But, when the big white bird flew suddenly up among the glossy leaves and the lemon flowers, and wheeled into the mountain, I followed it. What else is there to do, when such a thing happens on a brilliant April noonday at the foot of the White Mountains of Crete; when the road is hot and dusty, but the gorge is green, and full of the sound of water, and the white wings, flying ahead, flicker in and out of the deep shadow, and the air is full of the scent of lemon blossom?

The car from Heraklion had set me down where the track for Agios Georgios leaves the road. I got out, adjusted on my shoulder the big bag of embroidered canvas that did duty as a haversack, then turned to thank the American couple for the lift.

“It was a pleasure, honey.” Mrs. Studebaker peered, rather anxiously, out of the car window. “But are you sure you’re all right? I don’t like putting you down on the hill like this, in the middle of nowhere. You’re sure you’re in the right place? What does that sign post say?”

The above pictured cover was the one I originally read; the reread was of a more recent edition. When I was younger, I was fascinated by ancient history: Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to be exact; Greek or Roman or Egyptian ruins on the cover of a book, especially if it was a suspense novel, drew me to the book like moth to flame. (That was what originally drew me to read Phyllis A. Whitney’s Mystery of the Hidden Hand, which I now believe–my memory lies, remember–was the first Whitney I read, because it was set in Greece) I had also remembered seeing a film version of The Moon-spinners, broken up over two weeks’ episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, which starred Hayley Mills. I don’t remember much of the film now, but I do remember thinking it was vastly different from the book when I read it the first time. It’s not on Disney Plus (neither is Johnny Tremain or Now You See Him Now You Don’t, which has annoyed me regularly since I signed up for the service), and I’m not about to spend even three dollars on renting it on Amazon Prime–although I was tempted enough to look it up to see if it can actually be viewed anywhere.

Anyway.

I enjoyed the book much more greatly this time. I’m not certain why, precisely, I didn’t like it as much as Stewart’s other books at the time, but sometimes that’s just the way it is. The Moon-spinners focuses on Nicola Ferris, an adventurous young Englishwoman in her early twenties. She works at the British Embassy in Athens; her parents died when she was a teenager and she went to live with her aunt Frances, who is a leading botanist. Frances is also single and terribly independent, like most women in Stewart novels; Nicola admires and loves her aunt greatly and emulates her. Her aunt is taking a yacht voyage with friends around Greece and the islands; Nicola decides to take a vacation, meet up with Frances on Crete–a friend, a travel writer, has recommended a very remote village with a small hotel to them–and Nicola has the great good fortune, while on Crete, to meet an American couple (the above mentioned Studebakers) who are driving around Crete and offer her a lift to Agios Georgios, putting her there a day earlier than expected. (This sentence, describing the Studebakers,  They were both lavish with that warm, extroverted, and slightly overwhelming kindliness which seems a specifically American virtue–is a terrific example of Stewart’s exceptional skill as a writer; in that one sentence she tells you exactly who the Studebakers are.) The Studebakers aren’t terribly keen on letting her off in the middle of nowhere, to lug her suitcases and such over a dusty mountain trail to a village where she isn’t expected until tomorrow and where she will know no one; fortunately her work at the embassy has given her a passable knowledge of speaking Greek.  Nicola insists she’s fine and thanks them for their kindness, and starts trudging along the dusty path.

All of Stewart’s heroines are strong, capable, intelligent young woman who can take care of themselves; and courageous. It is while walking on the path that Nicola’s Greek adventure takes off–she stops at a pond to get a drink of water, and in the reflection of the water she sees a man’s face, watching her. Your average run-of-the-mill heroine would scream and run off or be terrified; Nicola is merely startled and curious. This is how she comes across Lambis, the Greek boatman, and young Mark Langley, who has been shot and needs medical attention. Nicola immediately makes Mark’s problems her own. Lambis, as it turns out, had put in his boat in a nearby bay so that Mark and his younger brother Colin could go exploring and look at the ruins of an old church, originally a shrine to a Greek god but converted during the days of the old Eastern Empire into a Byzantine church. As they are walking back to the boat they come across of small group of people arguing over a recently dead body. Mark is shot and left for dead; Colin is taken. And so, now of course, Nicola wants to help rescue Colin and help Mark–she isn’t, after all, expected for another day, and of course, the killers/kidnappers must be from the small town of Agios Georgios.

Stewart is, as always, an exceptionally talented writer. Her descriptions are simple yet poetic; she vividly brings the town, the mountains, the sea, everything to life so well you can easily imagine yourself there. And courageous Nicola, now possessed of dangerous knowledge that could get her killed, has to navigate the village while trying to help Mark find Colin, with no idea of who she can trust and where she can turn to help.

Nicola is a terrific heroine, and I can see why Stewart was so popular with women and teenaged girls; she wrote smart, no-nonsense, capable young women who were courageous and fearless and could pretty much handle anything. The suspense is, at times, unbearable.

There is an element of romance to the story as well; Nicola begins to have feelings for Mark, but it’s practically an afterthought, and it feels almost like it was inserted into the story. There’s absolutely no need for the two of them to develop feelings for each other; other than the psychological closeness that comes from a shared danger (one of the things I loved the most about the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, is that it showed that happy couples who bond over adventures don’t necessarily wind up living happily ever after; I’ve often wondered about the couples from these types of novels), and this is one of the reasons I no longer really consider Stewart a romantic suspense writer; the romances in her books often feel that way–something inserted into the story later to appease either her agent or editor–and they are completely unnecessary to the story; if anything, the romance develop organically because of what else is going on in the story; the suspense/mystery aspect is the most important part.

And Stewart consistently wrote some of the best openings in crime fiction.

Highly recommended; I will probably reread it again someday.

Under the Bridge

 Sunday morning, and I must confess that other than doing the errands and some slight cleaning yesterday, I fear the day was mostly a bust for getting things done. But that’s fine; I am off today and tomorrow as well–tomorrow should include both the gym and a Costco run–and I intend to get a lot of writing done today. The kitchen and living room are still in need of some straightening as well, and I assume that I shall get to that as I pass the day. I was thinking about going to the gym this morning, but I think I shall go tomorrow instead, and then have a Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout schedule to try to stick to; with perhaps going in on the weekends simply to stretch and do cardio. I have now discovered a new show to watch for cardio–The Musketeers, and there’s at least three seasons, I believe–which will makes things ever so much easier. I certainly did a lot of cardio while I was watching and enjoying Black Sails, so The Musketeers might just do the trick. (I had high hopes for Netflix’ Troy: The Fall of a City, but it was so boring I had to give up. HOW DO YOU MAKE THE TROJAN WAR BORING?)

While I was goofing off yesterday and watching things on Amazon/Netflix/Hulu/Youtube–yes, I know–I was also reading through Bertrand Russell’s brilliant and informative The History of Western Philosophy, and I came across this:

The last dynastic pope was Benedict IX, elected in 1032, and said to have been only twelve years old at the time. He was the son of Alberic of Tusculum, whom we have already met in connection with Abbot Odo. As he grew older, he became more and more debauched, and shocked even the Romans. At last his wickedness reached such a pitch that he decided to resign the papacy in order to marry. He sold it to his godfather, who became Gregory VI.

I do find it interesting that Russell chose to word it that way: that the height of his wickedness was his decision to resign and marry.

This led me into an Internet wormhole, looking up Benedict IX, the dynastic papacy, and the Tusculan popes. As you know, Constant Reader, history always has fascinated me; I would love one day to write historical fiction, as there are so many historical figures that fascinate me, from Catherine de Medici to Cardinal Richelieu to the Byzantine empress Irene to now, Benedict IX; and the century before him, where a woman named Marozia had enormous influence not only over the papacy but on who was elected pope (Marozia, in fact, founded the dynasty of popes called the Tusculans; which concluded with Benedict.) The Fourth Crusade, which wound up sacking Constantinople, also interests me, as do the histories of Venice and Constantinople.

And one can never go wrong with the Borgias and the Medici.

Anyway, one of the debaucheries of Benedict IX was sodomy, and it appears that the historical record holds that he was homosexual; how can I not be fascinated by a gay Pope, the way I am interested in Louis XIV’s gay brother Philippe duc d’Orleans?

So, of course I am making notes for a historical fiction novel called Benedictine, the tale of the gay pope.

Am I nothing if not predictable.

Next up in Florida Happens is Eleanor Cawood Jones’ “All Accounted For at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel”.

Eleanor Cawood Jones began her writing career in elementary school, using a #2 pencil to craft short stories based around the imaginary lives of her stuffed animal collection. While in college at Virginia Tech, she got her first paid writing job as a reporter with the Kingsport Times-News in Kingsport, Tenn., and never looked back. Eleanor now lives in Northern Virginia and is a marketing director and freelance copywriter while working on more stories as well as her upcoming mystery novel series. She’s an avid reader, people watcher, traveler, political news junkie, and remodeling show addict. She spends her spare time telling people how to pronounce Cawood (Kay’-wood).

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Mona, lingering over a third cup of coffee, flipped through her collection of vintage postcards while the all-consuming sound of crunching cereal across the table grated increasingly on her nerves.

She took a sip of lukewarm coffee, gritted her teeth, and reminded herself of her husband’s many good qualities—of which turning mealtime into crunchtime was not one. Things were easier when she had to dash off her to accounting job. In those days, there was never time for another cup of coffee, much less prolonged crunching noises.

“Rodney!”

Rodney looked up from the Racing Times. “Mmmm?” At least he wasn’t speaking with his mouth full.

“I wonder if this hotel is still around?” She held up a ’50s postcard with a modestly clad bathing beauty posing in front of a diamond-shaped, brightly painted sign advertising the Hooray for Hollywood Motel. In the photo, an appealing, pink-painted building featuring a bright blue swimming pool practically beckoned vacationers. A single story structure in a horseshoe shape provided easy access to drive in and unload luggage. The fine print mentioned another pool in the back of the motel as well, as well as an onsite restaurant. Nothing about ocean front, but Mona knew the area well enough to know the motel would be right between the coastal road A1A and highway 95 in the heart of Hollywood, Florida.

Rodney perked up. “Alexa, phone number for Hooray for Hollywood Motel in Hollywood, Florida.”

Mona shuddered, once again, at having to share her vintage, mid-century kitchen with Alexa the interloper. But Rodney had retired two years before her and had spent his spare time acquiring gadgets, of which this conversational internet talkie was the latest.

This charming little story tells the tale of Mona and Rodney, a retired couple from Ohio who impulsively decide to take a trip to Florida, based on finding an old postcard. They’d honeymooned in Florida years earlier, and now that they’re retired, why not? But once they arrive at the vintage old motel, Mona finds herself helping out the crotchety owner, and soon Mona and Rodney are helping revitalize and bring the old motel back to life…until one morning they find the owner floating in the swimming pool.

And then things get interesting.

Very pleased to have this charming tale in Florida Happens, and now I must get back to the spice mines.

Take Time to Know Her

I finished reading  Cleopatra’s Shadows last night. Over all, I enjoyed it, but with all due respect to Emily Holleman, I didn’t love it. I already knew the story of Cleopatra’s sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it, so that wasn’t the issue I had. I thought it was interesting that the book focused on the brief period of time when Berenice deposed her father and took the Egyptian throne. Usually, fiction about Cleopatra generally begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria and her being snuck into his presence rolled up inside of a rug; which, admittedly, is quite a romantic beginning and you can’t really go wrong starting there. The first book I ever read about Cleopatra–a bio for kids called Cleopatra of Egypt, written by Leonora Hornblow and illustrated by W. T. Mars–began with her fleeing from Alexandria out of fear her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII was going to kill her; and she rose an army and started a civil war. This war interrupted grain shipments to Rome–which was in the midst of its own civil war, between Pompey and Caesar. Caesar had just defeated Pompey, who fled to the court of the Ptolemies; Caesar pursued him there and also aimed to settle the Egyptian civil war. Ptolemy famously beheaded Pompey, thinking he would please Caesar by doing so; instead, he pissed him off, which made Caesar more inclined to be sympathetic to Cleopatra, who was actually Cleopatra VII. But one of the most interesting things to me about Hornblow’s book–which was for kids, mind you–was that she talked about Berenice’s rebellion and usurpation, as well as that of Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe–and how Cleopatra was present in Rome for the Roman Triumph in which Arsinoe was marched, in chains, behind a chariot…and that was the motivation behind her own suicide when she lost to Rome; she refused to be subjected to the same humiliations in front of the Roman mob that her sister endured.

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I found a copy of it on ebay a few years back, and bought it again. I kind of always wanted to write about both sisters, honestly.

So, obviously, I was very excited to read Cleopatra’s Shadows.

It isn’t that the book wasn’t well-written; it was, and I am sure, as Holleman is a historical scholar, it was undoubtedly incredibly well-researched. What was disappointing to me was that Holleman didn’t give either sister agency. The Ptolemy dynasty,  Macedonian Greeks descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who was rewarded with Egypt after Alexander’s death and the break-up of his empire, was known for it’s intelligent, highly educated and ruthless women. Like the Egyptian pharaohs of old, the Ptolemies married their sisters to keep the dynasty pure, and while there aren’t a lot of records–the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria to blame for this–there is enough evidence that the sister-wives were actually, in many instances, co-rulers and just as ruthless as the males. Each male pharaoh took the name Ptolemy; their sister/wives/queens were named either Cleopatra, Berenice, Arsinoe or Selene–or a combination of two of those names. Again, there is also evidence that Ptolemaic queens disappeared–probably murdered by their husbands, and the ‘pure bloodline’ wasn’t quite so pure, as the unions were sometimes sterile and other women, concubines, were brought in to bear children for the pharaoh. The plotting and machinations of the Ptolemaic court, the struggles for power, are endlessly fascinating to me; even in the children’s book which was my first introduction to the most famous (notorious) Cleopatra this was very clear.

So, the characters of Berenice and Arsinoe as Helleman chose to depict them were disappointing to me. Berenice was, per this novel, the only true child of a royal brother/sister pair; and her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, the Piper, was not a popular ruler. The premise of this story is that Ptolemy tired of his sister/wife Tryphaena and her inability to bear him a healthy son, so he banished her from court and replaced her with a beautiful concubine, who bore him four children–Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and two young males both named Ptolemy. Berenice’s revolution and overthrow of her father was apparently more based in the bitterness of mother and daughter in being supplanted by the concubine (never named) and her children more than anything else. And while it is all too frequently true that kingdoms and history were shaped by family disputes, rivalries, and romances/loves/jealousies, but I always kind of admired Berenice. The strong woman I always imagined she must have been, strong enough to raise a rebellion against an unpopular king, and to be successful, was not the character Helleman wrote about, who was vacillating, weak, and insecure.

Likewise, the younger sister, whose point of view the story is also told from, Arsinoe, is completely obsessed with her older sister Cleopatra, and barely a page in her point of view passes without so mention of how much she misses her sister. She never thinks about either her father or her mother, and given she is a child, that’s a bit more understandable. But Arsinoe eventually leads her own rebellion against Cleopatra’s rule, so clearly she too is an ambitious young woman as well as intelligent one, one foolhardy enough to rise the Egyptian people up against the Roman legions who have come to Alexandria to back up her sister, and I get no sense of that strong woman in this child. Things just happen to Arsinoe, and while there are slight hints of the politician in her being trained and brought to the fore in the lessons she is learning at the court of a sister who despises both her and her mother, for the most part she is just someone things  happen to–and she never grasps the idea that she should stop being passive and maybe make things happen. The Ptolemies were notoriously ruthless in killing people and relatives who might pose a threat; a pragmatism that may seem horrific to our modern-day sensibilities of family ties but something that was absolutely necessary for them to keep their thrones and their power secure. In fact, Berenice’s advisors want her to kill Arsinoe, but she refuses, and never gives any reason for doing so, which weakens her character still further.

It’s a good read, and it’s well-written and interesting, but I was disappointed with the characters, frankly. I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and is interested in the period.

And it did revive my interest in the Ptolemies.

And now, back to the spice mines.