I loved Black Ships, and I didn’t know if Jo Graham could top it. The answer, I am happy to report, is a great big YES!
Hand of Isis continues the story of some of the characters from Black Ships who have now been reincarnated as players in the Egyptian-Roman power struggle. You don’t need to read Black Ships first, but you’ll probably get more out of Hand of Isis if you do. The story is told from the point of view of Cleopatra’s “personal assistant,” Charmian, who is Gull reincarnated. As the novel opens, she stands before the Egyptian deities in the afterlife and tells her tale.
The story begins with three little girls — half-sisters (in this novel Cleopatra’s handmaidens Charmian and Iras are illegitimate daughters of Pharaoh) who become inseparable friends. As teenagers, they make a pact with the goddess Isis, vowing that if she will place Cleopatra on the throne, the three women will act as her hands in the world and do their best to make Egypt a better place. Later, when Cleopatra does become queen, Iras and Charmian are her closest confidantes and most valued advisors. We then follow Charmian as she helps facilitate her sister’s legendary reign and has some adventures and loves of her own along the way.
The city of Alexandria is almost another character in its own right. Graham paints a vivid picture of Alexandria, from its brilliant scholars to its take-out food. It’s a cosmopolitan melting pot where people have more freedom than they do in many other places in the ancient world. We can see exactly why it’s worth fighting for.
I know I’m reading a good book when I know the story ends tragically but still can’t tear my eyes away. There’s sadness here, certainly, but Hand of Isis also has its moments of joy, romance, friendship, and humor. It seemed to me that the overall mood was more upbeat than that of Black Ships, despite the eventual fates of the characters, and I think the humor is one of the major reasons. I laughed my head off at the scene where Caesarion finally meets his father and says… well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what he says, but it’s hilarious and so true to what a little boy might say at that moment. Jo Graham is also great at weaving mythology into her tale, showing the ways the characters’ lives echo and are shaped by divine archetypes. But, Graham keeps her characters perfectly human even when the world wants them to be larger than life. This makes both the triumphs and tragedies more real to the reader. The ending had me blubbering.
The pace is surprisingly fast. (I say “surprisingly” because historical novels often move slowly.) If there’s anything I’d change about Hand of Isis, I’d just want there to be more of it! I could read another few hundred pages of this. In particular, I’d have loved to see more of Iras. She’s wonderful when she’s “onscreen,” and the logistics of Cleopatra’s schedule result in Iras not being as prominent in the middle of the novel as she is at the beginning and the end. Cleopatra often travels and takes Charmian with her and leaves Iras behind to take care of things at home, or vice versa. Since Charmian is the POV character, this means Iras is often absent. I loved her character and would be thrilled to get inside her head.
Hand of Isis is enthusiastically recommended.