Hand of Isis: Behind every great woman…

Jo Graham Black Ships Hand of Isis book reviews historical fantasyfantasy book review Jo Graham Hand of IsisHand of Isis by Jo Graham

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.

~Kelly Lasiter

fantasy book review Jo Graham Hand of IsisA history of Cleopatra, as told by one of her handmaidens, Charmian, Hand of Isis is the second book in a loosely grouped series of stories by Jo Graham in which the characters are reincarnated from book to book. Having loved Black Ships, I had high hopes for Hand of Isis, but unfortunately those hopes were not completely fulfilled.

I’m not sure what it says about a book that my favorite character was the city they lived in, but the setting of Alexandria lives with a vibrancy that is missing from the other characters. That is my first big quibble with this book: none of the main characters are particularly interesting. It is the minor characters who I found intriguing, who kept getting caught up in the wake of the major characters moving about doing important things. Historically, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar were supposed to be incredibly charismatic leaders, beloved and hated by all who knew them, but that power doesn’t appear here except in small doses. I didn’t care when Caesar was killed, or when Cleopatra and her women commit suicide.

I think the second problem I had with Hand of Isis also explains the lack of emotional connection that I had to the characters: I know how the story ends. I kept waiting for Graham to do something different or interesting with the characters, but the story marched along to its foretold conclusion without deviation or despair. Having the story told as a series of flashbacks I think adds to the sense of inevitability that pervades the story.

Having gotten that out of the way, there is a satisfying story to be told here. Just as Black Ships made me want to read the Aeneid, this story made me want to learn more about Alexandria. There are many characters here who are playing out roles which they started in Black Ships, and it is interesting watching those relationships form and reform across time — though I hope Graham puts an identity chart in the next book so I can keep all of the characters straight across three books. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Hand of Isis, but if you are interested in Cleopatra, historical fiction, or the Hellenic Greek world, this book will be a satisfying read.

~Ruth Arnell

Hand of Isis — (2009) Publisher: Once, in a palace by the sea, there were three sisters born in the same year. The eldest was born in the season of planting, when the waters of the Nile had receded once more and the land lay rich and fertile, warm and muddy and waiting for the sun to quicken everything to life. She was born in one of the small rooms behind the Court of Birds, and her mother was a serving woman who cooked and cleaned, but who one day had caught Ptolemy Auletes’ eye. Her skin was honey, her eyes dark as the rich floodwaters. Her name was Iras. The second sister was born under the clear stars of winter, while the land greened and grain ripened in the fields, when fig and peach trees nodded laden in the starry night. She was born in a great bedchamber with wide windows open to the sea, and five Greek physicians in attendance, for she was the daughter of Ptolemy Auletes’ queen, and her name was Cleopatra. The youngest sister was born as the earth died, as the stubble of the harvest withered in the fields beneath the scorching sun. She was born beside the fountain in the Court of Birds, because her mother was a blond slave girl from Thrace, and that was where her pains took her. Water fell from the sky and misted her upturned face. Her hair was the color of tarnished bronze, and her eyes were blue as the endless Egyptian sky. Her name was Charmian. Once, in a palace by the sea, there were three sisters. All the stories begin so.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

View all posts by Kelly Lasiter


  1. I read this one before Black Ships. Of the two I liked this one a little better, mostly because I’d never really read anything about that particular time in history and I found myself fascinated by Alexandria as a city.

  2. Anonymous /

    Wow! That is amazing to hear on a second book. Now I am going to have to add these both to my list! Thanks!

  3. I absolutely loved Black Ships and am glad to read your positive review of Hand of Isis.

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