ricardienne: (christine)
[personal profile] ricardienne
It seems that the publishing industry is trying to make Cleopatra Selene into the new 'Tudors' -- this is the third recent historical fiction treatment. I haven't read Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, but I have read the first two books in Stephanie Dray's trilogy, and now, Vicky Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon.

The tropes seem to be pretty constant: Cleopatra's family is extremely (and un-historically) Egyptianized, Selene is a devotee of Isis (Isis rigorously part of the Egyptian pantheon, usually) and a complete, patriotic partisan, Octavian/Augustus is the evilest person who ever eviled, Greco-Egyptians are cultured, intellectual, open-minded and gentle while Romans are brutal, patriarchal, and uncivilized.

Shecter, like Dray, seems to be hampered by history, which puts an awkward necessity (there will be spoilers coming up) on the way that their narratives go. Selene is completely committed to regaining Egypt, she will do absolutely anything and everything to return there to take up her rightful place as queen and to protect her people from Roman dominion -- until, of course, she gives up and marries Juba and goes to Mauretania with him. It's "EGYPT EGYPT EGYPT EGYPT -- oh okay, I guess I not." And it's increasingly wild and never-going-to-work plots to regain Egypt that all fizzle out. From a narratological perspective and from the perspective of someone who studies how historical writers tell their narratives, it's fascinating, but I find it kind of lacking as a story. They are like, "so, we are going persuade Cornelius Gallus to go to Ethiopia and raise and army, then Selene will be smuggled to Capua, where the initiates of Isis will hide her until she can get to Alexandria to meet him," and I'm like, "hmm, yeah, no, not going to work. How long before this one crashes and burns?" (Not very long. And it all happens off screen.) To Dray's credit, she picked one alternate-history strand (Henry VIII!Augustus and Ann Boleyn!Selene, basically) and really developed it absolutely as far as it could go before breaking it. Shecter does one thing after the other, and they all go by pretty fast and are pretty forgettable. She tries to make 'free will' a theme, such that Selene's big Moment of Realization is that she *could* choose something different, and that she doesn't *have* to be Queen of Egypt.

At this point, however, I didn't care much because I found Selene quite unsympathetic. This is going to sound terrible, because, obviously she has witnessed really terrible things at the hands of the Romans, and there is no reason why she should make an effort to fit in in Octavian's household (for some reason, Shecter decided not to bother with the whole Augustus thing. Yes, it's bizarre, but she made a lot of bad choices with regard to historical details. I'll complain about those below.) Still, Selene's attitude was consistently "Ugh. Alexandria was so much better. I am so much smarter than all of you. Everything here is ugly. And stupid." She came across as self-centered and whiney. Given that it was a past-tense first person narrative, even just some post-facto self-awareness would have helped a lot. Something like, "As I look back, my behavior was perhaps not the best way to endear myself to the rest of the household. Livia was not entirely wrong to call me spoiled. But I cannot blame the girl who had seen her beloved parents kill themselves, her tutors and friends executed, and her city sacked, for refusing to hide her feelings, even if it would have been more politic to make friends in Caesar's house." But as far as I can tell, we were supposed to accept Selene's viewpoint completely and applaud her for her feelings of superiority.

It's justified, because the Romans are capital E EVIL. An awful lot of looking into eyes and seeing the cold soulless depths of cruelty. (Maybe I haven't had close encounters with enough tyrants in my time, but I always find this trope hard to believe.) On the one hand, yes, the Romans were not nice people; Roman culture was fairly brutal and also male dominated, predicated on violence, extremely hierarchical, etc. But a lot of the things that Selene whines about -- UGH the city of Rome is noisome and loud and dirty! Oh horrors Romans are legally allowed to treat their slaves cruelly! ZOMG there is a double standard for men and women and it's not fair! -- would also have been true in Alexandria. Except, presumably, as a Ptolemaic princess she never encountered the world outside the palace and just didn't have to see a lot of the unpleasantness that supported it. I mean, there isn't even an arena-games scene, where I feel like you could legitimately get some milage out of a non-Roman (and especially a Greek) character thinking, "SO MUCH HORROR WTF kind of people DO THIS?") But being shocked that cities are crowded and smelly and that non-elite citizens are not necessarily nice? Just kind of makes your character look clueless.

Okay, now to the miscellaneous peeving about little things that bugged me. I mentioned Homer and the treatment of Judaism in a previous post -- I will just reiterated that I actually quite hate the Gentle Elderly Rabbi topos. It's not as offensive as the Magical Negro, to be sure, but it's still pretty terrible.

(1) Selene says that Octavian has commissioned propagandistic poetry and history from Livy, Vergil, Horace, and Ovid. The idea of Octavian as a totalitarian mastermind giving detailed marching orders for every cultural artifact from the late 30's on is 50-odd years out of date, of course. But I'm not complaining about that -- Syme did have a disproportionate effect, and it's only been the last couple of decades that Roman studies has gotten away from a monolithic presentation of 'The Augustan Period' and a monolithic idea of all Augustan literature as directed propaganda. So fine. But Ovid? Was 15 years old at this point. Was hanging out with Tiberius in the declamation halls, being witty and snarky, and writing, if anything, the Heroides and (in)famous elegies about picking up girls. OVID, for heaven's sake! You know, the one whom Augustus eventually would exile to the Black Sea for his 'carmen et error.'

(2) Selene is shocked that there is no library in Rome, and even more upset that Augustus is building the the first one with the spoils from Alexandria. Um, except that Asinius Pollio had founded a public library 8 years earlier. I'm confused as to how one would be researching Augustus's library and fail to find out about Pollio's. And again, I am not anti-artistic license. But Shecter goes out of her way to introduce the question of libraries, and then misrepresents it.

(3) Scattershot inclusion of words from ancient languages. In general, I don't like it when authors show off their knowledge of the foreign language their characters are supposed to be speaking by having characters randomly throw in words from it. I accept that convention that what I see on the page represents dialogue in middle English, or demotic Greek, or far-future "Standard" or whatever language they happen to speak in Fantasy Country X, and it breaks that illusion to have characters dropping (and usually self-glossing) italicized words.

Where multiple languages are in play, however, I can buy it. For example, Selene's first language is Greek and she also knows Latin (because she is SPECIAL, she is fluent in ALL THE LANGUAGES, of course, and I actually doubt that she would have been as fluent in Latin as she is because she grew up in a Greek-speaking culture with one Latin-speaking parent (who wasn't even regularly for much of her childhood!) who would himself have been speaking much more Greek than Latin. But I digress. I'll give her Latin, and, for the rest, I pretended to myself that she was slightly overstating to herself the extent to which a few words and phrases counted as "fluency."). But for much of the novel S. is in Rome, where she speaks Greek to her brothers but mostly interacts with people for whom Latin is their first language, although they also know Greek. So I would have been happy with the narration being notionally "Greek", with some Latin words and some Greek words where Selene is code-switching, or where different cultural ideas are being explored.

But instead, we just get random Latin, and sometimes random Greek. For example, no one ever has a "study" or a "workroom" but always a tablinum. This means that our old friend the nice Rabbi from Alexandria, whose first language is probably a form of Aramaic or Hebrew, and who lives in a Greek city in Egypt, uses a Latin word to invite Greek-speaking people into his study. Right.

In conclusion: You could write so many awesome YA novels set in this general period. Livia in the late 40's and 30's: 16 years old and newly married, watching her male relatives get killed, fleeing around the Mediterranean and doing everything she can to protect who's left. "Turia", also newly married and having to play party politics and work really hard in a man's world to keep her family hidden and get amnesty for them. On a lighter note, Sulpicia and the Tibullan circle hanging out, writing love poetry, and maybe getting involved with Gallus and that whole debacle. Heck, someone should take Julia seriously, and not just dismiss her has the frivolous, immoral daughter of Augustus with a million affairs (it's frustrating that these Cleopatra Selene novels, in trying to rehabilitate one or two ancient women, just reapply and intensify the stereotypes to all of the other (in)famous women of the period) -- recall that all of the men she was rumored to have been involved with were *also* all of the remaining descendants of the oldest senatorial families. Julia the dedicated republican idealist, anyone? To move a bit later: what about a novel about teen-aged Agrippina the Younger and her mother? What about Epicharis? What about Berenike? (What about the Arrias and the Fannias? What about Servilia?) The field is wide open, people!
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