After the defeat and death of Cleopatra, her three youngest children were taken to Rome and paraded as spoils of war, then adopted into the household of the victorious emperor, Octavian. Of the three, the one who went on to make a mark on history was Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray tells the story of Selene’s coming of age in Rome, with a magical element added.
Selene is a fully-rounded character. We feel for her as she experiences her sudden fall from princess to pawn, and struggles to acclimate to her new life. She’s constantly striving to keep herself and her brothers alive in an environment where many would happily see them all dead. We sympathize with her as she goes through a dark night of the soul and loses her faith, and we cheer her as she matches wits with Octavian. At the same time, she has flaws. She is sometimes snobbish, as might be expected in a girl raised as a queen and demigoddess. She has a temper, which is all too often taken out on Octavian’s sister Octavia, who is actually one of the kinder people she meets in Rome. (It makes total sense in terms of the power dynamic; and Lily of the Nile is in part an exploration of power. Octavia is one of the few people she can lash out at without risking her life.) Nor is Selene a modern girl dropped into an ancient setting: she has a slave and doesn’t always treat her well; and she’s a little in love with her twin brother, which fits with her upbringing as a member of the Egyptian royal family but may shock some readers.
Other characters are complex too. First and foremost, there’s Octavian. He’s a huge control freak, but he’s vulnerable too, haunted by the kind of man he wishes he could be. He and Selene have competing schemes and it’s always interesting to wonder who will get what they want — and who will think they’ve gotten what they want, while actually being outmaneuvered by the other. Octavia is another rich character, her adoption of Mark Antony’s Egyptian children motivated by a private guilt. Livia is kind of a classic evil stepmother, but she’s fun to hate. Octavian’s daughter Julia, who becomes Selene’s friend, has an ebullient spirit that is slowly being crushed. Juba, Selene’s young tutor, is another child of foreign royalty; he has assimilated fully into the Roman worldview and gives Selene one model for how she might respond to the pressures upon her. Her brother, Helios, provides the other. Where Selene schemes, Helios rebels, which creates tension between the twins. He thinks she’s a coward. She thinks he’s going to get them all killed, but secretly wonders whether he might have the right of it.
We follow Selene as she navigates the intrigue within the Emperor’s household and walks a narrow line between saving her life and losing her soul. Adding to her difficulties are Rome’s strict gender roles, far more rigid than what she was used to in Alexandria; a woman who seeks power risks being labeled a whore and a witch. Especially if she’s also a worshipper of Isis, which Selene is, and that brings me to the magic. Selene has magical abilities that come from her goddess. These abilities are outside her control at first, then absent altogether when she loses her faith, and later begin to return as a part of her coming into her own.
Stephanie Dray completely immersed me in Alexandria and in Rome, and had me glued to every step of Selene’s sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspiring journey — even when the character made mistakes or was mean. I read Lily of the Nile in one day, unable to put it down. I recommend it to any reader who likes some magic with their historical fiction. You’ll like this if you like Jo Graham, for example. I will be snapping up book two in the CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER trilogy, Song of the Nile, as soon as I can.
A note on reader age: There’s something of a YA feel to Lily of the Nile, due to Selene’s youth and the coming-of-age elements of the plot. However, it is listed as an adult novel and from what I’ve read about Song of the Nile, there is more adult content in that second book. I would give Lily of the Nile itself to a teenager, but it’s technically adult fiction with a young protagonist rather than YA fiction per se.