Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review: Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Lily of the Nile by Stephanie Dray
Release Date: January 4, 2011
Publisher: Berkley Trade/Penguin
Pages: 351
Series: Cleopatra's Daughter #1
Received: Library
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


From Goodreads:

Heiress of one empire and prisoner of another, it is up to the daughter of Cleopatra to save her brothers and reclaim what is rightfully hers...

To Isis worshippers, Princess Selene and her twin brother Helios embody the divine celestial pair who will bring about a Golden Age. But when Selene's parents are vanquished by Rome, her auspicious birth becomes a curse. Trapped in an empire that reviles her heritage and suspects her faith, the young messianic princess struggles for survival in a Roman court of intrigue. She can't hide the hieroglyphics that carve themselves into her hands, nor can she stop the emperor from using her powers for his own ends.

But faced with a new and ruthless Caesar who is obsessed with having a Cleopatra of his very own, Selene is determined to resurrect her mother's dreams. Can she succeed where her mother failed? And what will it cost her in a political game where the only rule is win-or die?


Historical fiction with a capital H

Usually I make a distinction between historical fiction lite and Historical fiction (these are my own made up terms). The former uses an historical backdrop, but it isn't the focal point of the story and oftentimes features and character perceptions are modernized.

The latter is for historical fiction buffs--readers who want to be absorbed into the past and live and breathe the historical setting. Lily of the Nile is firmly in the latter category. It is clear that Stephanie Dray spent countless hours immersing herself in the world of Cleopatra Selene (Cleopatra's daughter) and the people who populated her life.

Minute details--from the clothing worn to the food eaten to the architecture and decor--are included in such a way that I felt like I was living in Selene's world. Never did Lily of the Nile feel like a textbook, dryly relating historical details. Instead, Stephanie Dray has invented a time machine, fully transporting me into Selene's turbulent world.

That said, there are magical elements that are, obviously, fictional, though they are woven in so seamlessly that they feel entirely natural.

But, erm, sometimes historical fiction can be boring...

As much as I love historical fiction, even with a capital H, I'm still an impatient reader. I like action and characters I can love and I don't like long periods of filler. So while I love the genre, I readily admit that a whole lotta Historical fiction books are BOR-ING!

So when I I looked at that large page count (hey, I'm impatient, 351 pages is a lot for me!), I cringed a little. But I started reading and before I knew it I was halfway through and my family was giving me puppy dog eyes because I had forgotten to make dinner (yes, this book made me forget about food. That's saying something).

After finishing dinner I dove back in and when I turned that final page I thought my heart would break because the book was over and I didn't have the sequel on hand. So basically what I'm saying here is: Lily of the Nile = So NOT boring!

A treasure trove of characters

One thing that can make Historical fiction boring is an over-focus on the setting and major events and not enough focus on developing the characters. Sure, they're historical figures and I know them in a textbook approach, but when I read historical fiction I want to know them. I want them to come alive off the page and be more than just the events they are known for.

On this, Stephanie Dray delivered. Even characters like Cleopatra and Mark Antony (who are dead from the outset) felt fully alive. I've read a decent bit about Cleopatra, and Stephanie Dray's version--a woman seen only through the memory of the characters--is just as vibrant and developed as she is in the books that focus on her story.

Octavian, Livia, Octavia, Julia, Helios, and all of the other major players in Selene's life are as nuanced and developed as if they were the main character. They may not have been the main character, but they each still score highly on the WWMCD Test.

But this is Selene's story

I'm totally swapping BFF charms with Selene. She grows tremendously throughout the course of the book, evoking and grappling with the legacies of both her famous mother and father, but ultimately becoming a strong woman in her own right.

Usually when I think of fierce fighters, I think of characters who are physically fierce. Selene isn't a physical fighter. She is a shrewd strategist, fighting her battles through politics, leadership, and manipulation.

She is pitted against the emperor Octavian, presented here through Selene's perspective as a vile man prone to insecurities but brilliant at maneuvering those around him. Watching these two go head to head in a battle of wits was as tense and captivating as the most action-packed battle scenes.

The pacing isn't fast, but it is steady and deliberate. This isn't a fight to be won quickly. This is the kind of fight where both parties plan elaborate schemes that will unfold across decades.

But I'm not just swapping BFF charms because I admire Selene. Lily of the Nile is told through Selene's first person narration, and as such not only was I able to observe her prowess, but I was also privy to her insecurities, hopes, and fears. I really felt like we were best friends.

"Insecurities" is more often than not a DO NOT WANT word for me because there are few things that annoy me more than a wishy washy character who is all woe is me blah blah blah, but Selene's insecurities were not annoying. Her situation is serious--that she reflected on the consequences of her actions and the way her life and upbringing shaped her personality just made her that much more real and relatable to me.

Is there romance?

Lily of the Nile follows Selene's life from when she's 10 to 14 years old, which is young, but they also did things differently back then (and don't let her age give off the wrong idea--this is a YA/adult crossover book, NOT a MG book).

Selene explores her feelings for a man (and if you know your history, then you'll know what happens with him). My feelings for him progressed exactly the way Selene's feelings developed and changed. But I won't tell you any more about that because watching it all unfold and wondering how it will work out is half the fun.

But, as a twin from Egypt raised in the Egyptian culture, she also has a...more than sisterly bond with her twin brother. Yeah, it can be a little uncomfortable coming from a modern perspective (especially considering how freaking hot her brother is--hey, *I* can admire him all I want...except, he's, uh, young. See the mental knots this has me tied up in?!) but I kept having to remind myself that I can't judge them based on my social norms.

Still, the romantic action Selene sees is totally PG--with the exception of one horrible scene where she is raped. The sequel will probably step this up and then I can really get twisted up in my head while I root for her brother to erm, nevermind.

Bottom line

As long as Stephanie Dray writes historical fiction, I will read it. Heck, I will auto-buy it, and I almost never do that!

There is a sequel and while Lily of the Nile doesn't end on a cliffhanger, per se, it does end right in the middle of her life and at a crucial turning point.

I have read a lot about Cleopatra and my Roman history of this time is pretty decent on the broad strokes, but fuzzier on the details. This is the first book I've read that focuses on Selene. I don't think being a history buff on the time period is necessary to enjoy it, but a basic familiarity with Cleopatra's reign and Roman history at this time would probably be helpful. There is a handy character list at the front of the book and I recommend reading the author's intro and afterward.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Lily of the Nile that I haven't addressed? 
Feel free to ask in the comments!

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  1. I completely get you on being and impatient reader since I totally am too.

    Now this story sounds pretty awesome, even though I'm more into HF-lite, :)
    Still, this book sounds like a good mood book to me - you know something you read when you're in that particular mood! :D

    Thanks for the awesome review.

  2. Wow, wonderful review, this is going straight on my wishlist! I'm a big history buff, though I haven't read a whole lot of Historical fiction, but this sound right up my alley, especially if it's grounded in fact without being overloaded by it.

  3. You forgot about food? OMG this book must have been totally awesome then :D

  4. Who did you end up liking more for her? The intended love interest... or *clears throat* her brother?

    I only know up until the end of Cleopatra's reign, so I DON'T know too much on Selene and Helios, especially minute details.

    Still, I looove HF, so this was auto-saved into my TBR pile. I always get pulled into your reviews, Small, no matter what it actually is that you're talking about. THAT's saying something(:

    - Asher (from Paranormal Indulgence)

  5. Thanks for the review. I've had this on my to-read list for a while, but wasn't sure about it. I love anything to do with ancient Egypt, but have found, like you mentioned, that some historical fiction can get so bogged down in detail that it gets tedious to slog through. I think I'll be bumping this one higher on my list now!

  6. I was pretty much ok with Helios and Selene... but I guess I'm comfortable with a lot of interesting pairings heh.

  7. Ohhhhh I think I would like this one, based on your review! Although the whole thing with her brother has me a little wary in that regard... but the attention to historical detail and atmosphere sounds fantastic.

  8. I believe Jenny reviewed and loved this one too. I'll totally be bumping it up in my TBR pile now. I have a feeling I'll be learning things from this one while enjoying the story.

  9. Alex, It was really awesome, I thought. I'd be curious to see what you think. I think it has enough plot and interesting things going on like that that you might still like it even though it's heavier HF. Do you like political scheming?

    Belle, Thank you! I'm interested in seeing what you think of Helios :) I think this is a great book if you like history but haven't read a lot of HF because the story just swept me up. The facts just seemed like a part of the story and not facts you had to slog through to get to the story, if you know what I mean.

    The Slowest Bookworm, hahaha I know, that's really saying something!

    Asher, Well, to your question, it really should be more the man she's set up with or her brother, and I ended up liking her brother MUCH more. The other one I had a lot of problems with (and they are the same problems Selene has with him). He does some things that I'm having a hard time forgiving him for.

    Allison, You're welcome! This was such a pleasure to read. I was immediately swept up into the story and didn't want to surface for air until it was over :P (and then I wanted to dive right back in for the sequel). I hope you like it!

    Sniffly Kitty, Yeah, I feel a twinge of "I shouldn't be ok with this" but I really am :) They're just too perfect together.

    Danya, I think you would too! The brother thing is a little weird, but it was perfectly natural for the time and the way Stephanie Dray writes the characters' personalities they are such a perfect couple.

    A Canadian Girl, Please do! I hope you enjoy it. I learned a ton of stuff I didn't know and it was all taught in such an easy to read way.

  10. This sounds fabulous! I am skipping today's review of the sequel and commenting on this one. I like that the pacing is steady on this. I agree that historical fiction can get bogged down. It takes extra skill to keep things interesting.

  11. I could have sworn that I commented on this review already...which is kind of scary. Did I leave the comment somewhere else (on your interview with Lisa Brown or something?). I'm officially losing it.

    Anyway, I was quickly absorbed in Lily of the Nile, though originally, I was only reading it because I was reviewing the sequel. They're both fantastic but not, I'd say, for the casual reader.

  12. I want to give this one a try, just to support a HF book that isn't set in a typical time/place. Hooray for Egypt! This sounds fun.

  13. I love HF set in Egypt. And Cleopatra, well I loved her so why wouldn't I love her daughter! I can't wait to read this one. (Yes, it's on my shelf waiting patiently)


  14. Alison, I really zipped right through these books. There always seemed to be something going on.

    Ruby, haha nope I don't see a comment somewhere else, but I've officially LOST it, so what do I know? :P I can't wait to see your review! No, not for the casual reader. I think a person would definitely have to be interested in the history of the time.

    Logan, I know right? Everything is in England!

    Heather, Me too! I wish I knew of more titles. I really like her daughter, or at least Stephanie Dray's portrayal of her. I hope you love this series as much as I do!

  15. Definitely impressed that this one didn't read like a textbook but still managed to be detailed on the period. That takes talent.

    I really know next to nothing about the time and characters... how, erm, interesting about her twin brother...

  16. Aylee, she really pulled it off. There were so many details, but it just felt like I was living the history and not dryly learning about it. Very talented. It is...interesting...about her brother, but it was impossible for me not to root for him.


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