Friday, February 11, 2011

Book review: Lily of the Nile, by Stephanie Dray

Although it features an adolescent heroine, Stephanie Dray’s riveting Lily of the Nile is less about coming of age than it is about coming into power – and in more ways than one. Cleopatra Selene is the product of the illustrious union between Cleopatra of Egypt and her Roman consort, Mark Antony. As the novel begins, ten-year-old Selene is asked to carry a basket of figs with asps concealed beneath, and her unwitting role in her mother’s death haunts her. Before Queen Cleopatra commits suicide, she tells her daughter potent words that it takes her years to understand.

Captured and transported from Alexandria to Rome by soldiers loyal to Octavian, Selene and her brothers Helios and Philadelphus are paraded in chains before cheering crowds. Despite the siblings' initial treatment, Dray’s portrait of Selene’s new Roman family isn’t completely unsympathetic. Lady Octavia, Octavian's kind and devoted sister (and Mark Antony's former wife), takes them into her household, a dwelling whose simple and plain décor contrasts with the lavish comfort of their Egyptian palace. Selene spends her days sewing, playing, and learning from her tutor, the exiled Numidian prince, Juba; she also befriends Octavian’s neglected daughter, Julia.

It’s left to Selene, an enemy in a foreign land, to navigate her way through the political intrigue surrounding her. She must demonstrate her loyalty to Octavian and Rome while remembering her status as a Ptolemy, the daughter of the most influential woman of her age. Will Selene follow in her mother’s rebellious footsteps or find a way to help Egypt through other means? When messages in hieroglyphics magically appear on her arms, carved out in her blood, her hereditary role as leader of the Isiac faith becomes harder for her and her Roman guardians to ignore.

Even in death, Cleopatra’s presence looms so large in Lily of the Nile that it starts off feeling like a sequel, but enough context is provided for readers to pick up the background details on Egypt’s subjugation by the Roman Republic. Selene’s honest and open voice is inviting, and the clean writing style keeps the pages turning rapidly. Although she chooses a different path than her mother, Selene proves that she’s cut from the same cloth. Even as a teenager, her skillful understanding of political stratagems means she has the potential to become Octavian’s most trustworthy subject or most formidable adversary – all depending on how he plays his part. As she comes fully into her own, so does her triumphant narrative.

This informative and enjoyable novel is recommended for fans of historical fiction and fantasy, including young adult readers. This is the projected first in a trilogy, and I’ll be on board for book two.

Lily of the Nile was published by Berkley in January at $15.00 ($18.50 in Canada), 351pp, including an author's note and readers' guide. Visit the author's website for background information as well as details on the sequel, Song of the Nile, out this autumn.  Also, for more on Selene and the Isiac faith, see her guest post from last November, How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis.


  1. I loved this book and am so excited that there will be two more in the series! The way the author brought the magic of Ancient Egypt into the novel, without having it seem like a paranormal fantasy book, was excellent.

    Here is my review:

  2. I've heard nothing but good things about this - I can't wait to get my hands on it!!

  3. Now that I've cleared off the spam that appeared here this morning...

    I enjoyed your review, Svea, and I agree about both the handling of magic and the characterization of Octavian in the novel. He would have been easy to dislike, seeing as it's told from Selene's pov, but instead he intrigued me.

    Hope you enjoy the book also, Daphne.