Daughters of the Nile concludes Stephanie Dray’s trilogy about Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra, who survived the fall of her mother’s kingdom and went on to become a queen herself. I’ve never been quite sure how to categorize this series — is it fantasy? is it historical fiction with magic realism? — but I’ve certainly been enjoying it.
In Lily of the Nile, we saw Selene as a young girl coming of age; in Song of the Nile we saw her dealing with the issues of young womanhood in addition to the precarious political situation in which she lived. In this third volume, we follow Selene as a mature married ruler with children. She and her husband, King Juba, have taken tentative steps toward making their marriage a true partnership as well as a political alliance, but the relationship has been poisoned with old hurts and mistrust for a long time, and each of them thinks the other is more loyal to the emperor than to him-or-herself (and given the politics of the day, it might even sometimes be true). Selene is also concerned with securing a future for her children and niece, and is torn between ambition on their behalf and a desire to keep them safe from the schemes of Rome. Both of these plotlines are fraught with emotional tension, and Dray will have you worrying, crying, and sometimes rejoicing right along with Selene.
The subtle presence of magic continues to weave its way through the narrative, especially when young Princess Isidora begins to show talents of her own. Then, later in the novel, it seems that the magic level is suddenly amped up much higher than it’s ever been — but then one realizes that it’s not sudden or new at all, given what almost certainly really happened at Eleusis in book two.
The ending of Daughters of the Nile is poignant and beautiful, including a scene that almost makes me think Dray read my old, old review of Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra way back when, because it’s exactly the kind of scene I wished for at the end of that tale. It’s wonderful. And dang it, Stephanie Dray, you made me cry on the bus.
As in Song of the Nile, Dray includes a truly meaty section of author’s notes at the end. In it, she describes what was real and what was her own poetic license, and why she made those choices. I recall Sharon Kay Penman writing about how no novelist would dare to invent Anne Neville dying during an eclipse if it hadn’t actually happened, and there’s a lot of the same phenomenon here — some of the wildest parts of the story are the true ones!
Daughters of the Nile is a longish book — the print edition is 576 pages — but I whipped through it at a frenetic pace. Stephanie Dray brought this somewhat obscure figure to life in my mind, and made me relate to her even though she doesn’t always think like us. She felt like an old friend and I rooted for her all the way. If you’ve read the other two books, don’t even think about missing this one. If you haven’t read them but like big lush historical fiction with a bit of magic, go get Lily of the Nile and start there; you’re in for an adventure.