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Jo Graham – Hand of Isis

April 9, 2009

38. Hand of Isis by Jo Graham (2009)

Length: 502 pages

Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 05 April 2009
Finished: 08 April 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since I heard it was coming out.
Verdict? Going back to the library, but I would like a copy of my own.

Cleopatra was
touched by the gods, but can she
keep her country free?

Summary: Charmian may have been the daughter of a slave, but she was also handmaiden, advisor, and half-sister to Cleopatra, who became one of the most powerful woman the world has ever known. They, along with their sister Iras, are inseparable as girls, playing in the palace and sneaking out into the streets of Alexandria, the freest city in the world. However, the when Pharaoh dies, their world is thrown into upheaval – Cleopatra’s elder siblings are engaged in a bloody battle of succession, and Cleopatra and her sisters must flee the city or be caught in the political machinations. While in exile, the girls make a pledge to Isis, the Mother of Egypt and the Mother of the World – a pledge to do her work on Earth, to care for Egypt, and her people, despite the cost to themselves. Isis accepts, and so they are set upon their journey, for it is a time of great political currents, which Cleopatra – with her sisters’ aid – must weather if she wants to keep her people free from Roman rule. Charmian – who would have been called an oracle in a more superstitious time – can catch glimpses of the Great Story through which they move, but will that be enough to alter the course of events in Egypt’s favor?

Review: Jo Graham’s debut book, Black Ships, was one of the best books I read last year, so I was understandably excited to get my hands on her next novel. And while Hand of Isis didn’t quite live up to its predecessor, it was still a solid, well-researched, well-crafted, and enjoyable piece of historical fiction. Most stories of Cleopatra, whether sympathetic or not, are told from a Roman perspective, so it was fascinating to see her put into the context of her own country, history, and culture. Graham’s portrayal of Alexandria was equally vivid and nuanced – a much more modern-feeling city than we would normally imagine during the Classical period.

I think where this novel lost me was in the politics. I almost always prefer characters to plot, and large-scale political machinations have to be exceptionally well-presented for me not to tune them out. While it’s undeniable that the movements of Roman armies and alliances are important to understanding Cleopatra’s story, it would take a much more detailed map than the one in the front for me to keep all of the troop deployments straight… if I cared enough to do so. The most interesting parts of the story are the most personal, and since our narrator never sees the battles, reading the endless war dispatches over her shoulder gets somewhat tedious. The first half of the book – when the sisters are girls, and the early stages of Cleopatra and Caesar’s relationship – was easily the best, since we got to spend time with the people as people, instead of reserved and distant politicians. In the later half of the book, we get more of Charmian growing into her own place and her own life and loves, which was great (and extremely touching in parts), but we lose a lot of the personal insight into Cleopatra, which was a shame.

I also really enjoyed the mysticism aspects of the story. It’s not fantasy proper, but more small touches of the gods interfering in mortal affairs. I particularly enjoyed Charmian’s visions, and the subtle way things tied back to Black Ships. Although in many ways Charmian is Gull reincarnate, it’s not a sequel proper, and either book could be read on its own. However, for those who have read Black Ships, there are nice “Oh!” moments scattered throughout where another little piece fits together, and resonance and power of the whole story is amplified.

I think the best recommendation I can make for this book was that even though I knew how it was going to end – hard to stay spoiler-free for a novel as historically accurate as this one – I still got more than a little misty-eyed at the end. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Historical fiction fans – particularly those interested in Egypt, or those who like the other side of the story to major historical events – should definitely seek this one out.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Links: Jo Graham’s Blog

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In twilight I approached the doors, and in twilight they stood open for me.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 13: “Instead we spread our himations on the stone seats, which were still chilly from the morning air, halfway down the tiers facing the stage.” – a garment consisting of a rectangular piece of cloth thrown over the left shoulder and wrapped about the body.
  • p. 79: “Dion blushed even more. “There was never a more ideal erastes in the history of the world, and that’s saying rather a lot.”” – an adult male involved in a pederastic relationship with an adolescent boy, or a general term for any male admirer courting a particular boy, even if he had not been accepted by the boy as a bona fide lover.
  • p. 83: “We would take turns, since the banquet could be expected to last three or four hours, start to finish, not counting the drinking and games of kottabos at the end.” – a game of skill popular for a long time at ancient Greek and Etruscan symposia (drinking parties), especially in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, played by flinging wine lees at targets.
  • p. 84: “I watched for an hour or so, throught the speeches of welcome and the propomata going around, oysters stewed in red wine with coriander, salt fish from the Bosporus, little bits of cheese rolled around coriander seeds and ornamented with dill fronds, and a great many other things.” – the first course, appetizers
  • p. 108: ““It’s only gold leaf,” Cleopatra whispered to me after. “Over cartonnage. We can’t possibly afford gold.”” – a type of material composing Egyptian funerary masks from the First Intermediate Period onward. It was made of layers of linen or papyrus covered with plaster.
  • p. 115: “Resinous smoke billowed up from two great braziers before the altar, myrrh and frankincense and kephiri, dark and fragrant as the night of Her search, touched with lotus and something more sweet beneath the scent of funerals.” – possibly a variant of kefir, a fermented milk drink that originated in the Caucasus region. It is prepared by inoculating cow, goat, or sheep’s milk with kefir grains.
  • p. 159: ““I’ll be here. Caesar has my turma on guard duty. Cavalry’s not much use in the city, and we’ve been with him a long time.”” – A Roman division of a cavalry unit.
  • p. 163: “He looked at me and blushed scarlet. “I’m not a hetaira,” I said gently.” – one of a class of professional independent courtesans of ancient Greece who, besides developing physical beauty, cultivated their minds and talents to a degree far beyond that allowed to the average Attic woman.
  • p. 176: ““Do you believe in pothos, like Alexander? Fata, leading you by the hand?”” – the longing towards an unattainable goal
  • p. 196: “I had never before seen Dion as the pursuer rather than the pursued, and he seemed to be finding it harder than he thought. Perhaps the role of erastes did not come as easily to Dion as the role of eromenos.” – In the pederastic tradition of Classical Athens, an adolescent boy who was in a love relationship with an adult man.
  • p. 229: ““For example, when you sound the highest string on a kithara many men can’t hear it.”” – a musical instrument of ancient Greece consisting of an elaborate wooden soundbox having two arms connected by a yoke to which the upper ends of the strings are attached.
  • p. 274: ““Besides” – she looked at me sideways – “if I joined the procession of maenads, where should it end?”” – A woman member of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus.
  • p. 289: ““What if a man got in over the roof of his own house and jumped down through the impluvium?”” – In Roman dwellings, a cistern or tank, set in the atrium or peristyle to recieve the water from the roof, by means of the compluvium; generally made ornamental with flowers and works of art around its birm.
  • p. 301: ““And then the crowd rushed him, and the lictors got in front and we had to put the litter down or it was going to be knocked over and his poor body dumped in the street, so we put it down and one of the bodyguards was killed just like that, by a thrown rock.”” – A Roman functionary who carried fasces (a bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade projecting, borne before Roman magistrates as an emblem of official power) when attending a magistrate in public appearances.
  • p. 308: “We sailed immediately, passing through rows of merchant ships, past the dockyard where Rome’s quinqueremes were tied up.” – A galley having five benches or banks of oars
  • p. 389: “He was growing again in a spurt, and dressed in the stiffened white linen shenti of Pharaoh, he moved with dignity.” – A loincloth like garment worn in ancient Egypt.
  • p. 420: “Sigismund had been one of the last wounded, he said, when the heavy Parthian cataphracts had pinned them against the river and punched through the tortoise of the Third Gallica Legion.” – Defensive armor used for the whole body and often for the horse, also, esp. the linked mail or scale armor of some eastern nations – presumably cataphracts (plural) refers to cavalry in this kind of armor.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 10, 2009 2:08 am

    It looks good to me! I want to check it out!

  2. April 10, 2009 6:31 pm

    sounds like a great book to me. Thanks for the review. I really like the cover.

  3. April 10, 2009 11:14 pm

    Wow I’m intrigued! I might just have to read this one!

  4. April 10, 2009 11:40 pm

    Amy – I haven’t read a ton of Egypt-based historical fiction to know how it compares, but for historical fiction in general, it was really enjoyable!

    Serena – I do too, although the girl on the cover doesn’t really match my mental image of Cleopatra, Charmian, or anyone else in the novel.

    Ladytink – I recommend this one, but I really, really recommend Black Ships… but in any case, Jo Graham is now officially on my “authors I trust enough to buy their new books as they come out” list. :)

  5. July 29, 2010 12:03 am

    That’s a great review, and I really like the addition of the vocabulary list.

    Interestingly, Hand of Isis is my favorite of the three books.

    My review:


  1. Hands of Isis (Nicola)

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