For three centuries, the House of Ptolemy has governed the Kingdom of Egypt. Cleopatra – seventh of her name – rules from Alexandria, that beacon of commerce and learning that stands between the burning sands of the desert and the dark waters of the Middle Sea.
But her realm is beset by ethnic rivalries, aristocratic feuds and courtly intrigues. Not only that, she must contend with the insatiable appetite of Julius Caesar who needs Egyptian grain and Egyptian gold to further his ambitions. The world is watching the young Queen, waiting for a misstep…
And now her most trusted servant – her Eye – has been murdered and a vast shipment of newly minted coin stolen. Cleopatra cannot afford for the coins to go unrecovered or the murderers unpunished, so she asks childhood friend, Tetisheri Nebenteru, to retrace the dead Eye’s footsteps.
Tetisheri will find herself plunged into the shadowy heart of Alexandria. As she sifts her way through a tangle of lies and deceit, she will discover that nothing can be taken at face value, that she can’t trust anyone – perhaps not even the Queen herself.
I’m a very happy bunny. I’ve just read the first book in a new series by Dana Stabenow, one of my favourite authors and I loved it.
I wasn’t sure I would because this book is a long way from Kate Shugak solving mysteries in modern Alaska. This is historical fiction and not familiar Victorian or Georgian historical fiction. This is a mystery set in Alexandria in 47 BC when Cleopatra was Queen and Julius Caesar was carving his way to absolute power in the Roman Empire.
Anything I know about Cleopatra and Caesar comes from Shakespeare, Shaw or Hollywood, none of whom are renowned for their commitment to historical accuracy, so it wasn’t that I was worried that Dana Stabenow’s historical background would clash with my detailed knowledge of the Ptolemy dynasty but rather that I wondered how such a distant place and time could be made real and have a decent mystery at its heart in a book that is less than three hundred pages long.
Well, Dana Stabenow pulled it off. Reading ‘Death Of An Eye’, I was reminded of how excited I was when I found Lyndsey Davis’ first Falco novel, ‘The Silver Pigs’. True, it’s set nearly a hundred and fifty years later, it’s told from a Roman point of view and it’s set in Britain, all of which are more familiar to me than Alexandria in 47 BC. What ‘Death Of An Eye’ and ‘The Silver Pigs’ have in common is compelling, relatable characters, a gripping plot, an historical background that is made vivid without drowning the reader in detail and the strong sense that the story you’ve just read has set the scene for a series you’re hungry to consume more of.
As I should have expected from Dana Stabenow, ‘Death Of An Eye’ is dominated by strong women doing difficult and dangerous things. The male characters are there either to cause them problems, distract them or support them when they need it. For me, the story was carried by how well Dana Stabenow drew the main character, Tetisheri Nebenteru, and by how twisty and surprising the plot was.
Tetisheri’s history gives her a lot of potential but, at nineteen, she has relatively little experience. She’s a childhood friend of Cleopatra and was trained in self-defence and the use of weapons alongside her. She’s an equal partner with her uncle in a successful luxury goods import business, she reads and speaks multiple languages and she has remained a trusted friend of the Queen. She’s also survived two years of a deeply abusive, violent marriage that ended in a hotly contested divorce and she has a habit of bringing vulnerable women into her household and helping them achieve some security and independence.
What’ Tetisheri doesn’t have is any experience as an investigator or as someone who wields power, even covertly, on behalf of the Queen. This means that we can learn about the players in the story and their social and political context with Tetisheri as she dives in to solve the mystery for the Queen.
The plot is clever without being so complex that I couldn’t follow it. I liked that, while I thought I knew what was going on, most of what I thought I knew turned out to be wrong or incomplete and I didn’t get the full picture until almost the end of the book. The book isn’t all political intrigue. There are a few well-executed action scenes where Tetisheri is at significant risk. There’s also a slow-burn romantic thread that never gets in the way but does make things more interesting. Finally, there’s Cleopatra herself. It took me to the end of the book to appreciate just how far-sighted, ruthless and devious she was. I thought it spoke to how well written the book is that I found her believable as a ruler and could still see her as a person who might value a childhood friend.
‘Death Of An Eye’ is a self-contained mystery with no cliff-hangers but it also lays a solid foundation for a series set in interesting times with an engaging cast of characters. The second book in the series, ‘Disappearance Of A Scribe’ is already in print. I’m hoping that there will be an audiobook version soon so that I can enjoy Margueritte Gavin’s narration. The third book, ‘Theft Of An Idol’ is due for release in November 2022.