Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman | Book Review

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman | Book ReviewCleopatra's Shadows by Emily Holleman
on October 6th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Biographical
Pages: 352
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
Buy on Amazon

Page-turning historical fiction that reimagines the beginnings of Cleopatra's epic saga through the eyes of her younger sister.
Before Caesar and the carpet, before Antony and Actium, before Octavian and the asp, there was Arsinoe.
Abandoned by her beloved Cleopatra and an indifferent father, young Arsinoe must fight for her survival in the bloodthirsty royal court when her half-sister Berenice seizes Egypt's throne. Even as the quick-witted girl wins Berenice's favor, a new specter haunts her days-dark dreams that have a habit of coming true.
To survive, she escapes the palace for the war-torn streets of Alexandria. Meanwhile, Berenice confronts her own demons as she fights to maintain power. When their deposed father Ptolemy marches on the city with a Roman army, both daughters must decide where their allegiances truly lie, and Arsinoe grapples with the truth, that the only way to survive her dynasty is to rule it.

Cleopatra is such a fascinating historical figure. She ruled all of Egypt, not in the guise of a man, but as a woman. It stands to measure that her lesser known siblings would also be interesting as well. Emily Holleman explores the story and motivations of Cleopatra’s sisters in her debut novel, Cleopatra’s Shadows. For the most part, Holleman succeeds in writing an epic and moving story of familial betrayal and thirst for power set amid a historically significant backdrop.

Cleopatra’s Shadows opens up with the palace being under siege. Arsinoe, younger sister of Cleopatra, has been left behind. And so, she runs down to the docks to tell her sister, Cleopatra, that she loves her and wants to go with her. Alas, she cannot go. Cleopatra is the favored daughter of the current king, Ptolemy the Piper and so she is whisked away while Berenice, her older sister, attacks the palace and takes over.

Arsinoe, abandoned and cherished by no one it seems, stays behind and is given refuge by Berenice, despite Berenice’s advisors who think that Arsinoe may be a spy for the Piper. Both Berenice and Arsinoe must navigate courtly intrigues as well as the machinations of both Rome and the Piper. Holleman’s novel takes on the perspectives of both Berenice the elder sister and Arsinoe the younger sister with alternating chapters between the two. There were several turns that this plot took that I honestly did not expect, but which were quite unpredictable.

Arsinoe is quite young when Cleopatra’s Shadows opens. She’s under 10 years old. Yet, her chapters read as though she is much older. It was a bit jarring to read thoughts and adult dialogue coming from a child. I mean, at different points Arsinoe is studying philosophy and Greek plays and her conclusions and thoughts are miles beyond the average high school student. I understand that times are different now, but it was still a bit hard to swallow what felt like the age inappropriateness of Arsinoe’s character.

As a character though, I thought Arsinoe was compelling. This is a girl who has been abandoned and rejected by her family members. Her father and sister, Cleopatra, leave her behind. Also, her mother leaves her behind in favor of saving her sons instead. Her friends have fled. And so, Arsinoe is left at the mercy of Berenice. It is an interesting dynamic for sure. Also, Arsinoe has premonitions and prophetic dreams. I felt that this was a characteristic that held my attention during Arsinoe’s chapters.

The jacket copy makes Cleopatra’s Shadows sound like it is strictly narrated from Arsinoe’s point of view and that the main thrust would be on Arsinoe. This is not the case. Berenice The Shining plays a huge role. Berenice is half sister to Arsinoe and Cleopatra. Her parents are Ptolemy the Piper and his sister, Tryphaena whereas Arsinoe and Cleopatra’s mother is only referred to as the Concubine. Berenice has pretty much been thrown over by her father for Cleopatra. So, she is angry. What does she do? She invades the palace with her own army which causes Ptolemy and Cleopatra to retreat. Berenice is coronated and takes on the task of ruling Alexandria and hopes to wrest Cyprus from the hold of Rome.

Meanwhile, she is in a race against time with her father who is going to turn to Pompey for aid in reclaiming his kingdom. Berenice actually won me over. She rails against the suggestion of her advisors to marry one of her younger half brothers after seeing all of the stillborns her mother bore as a result of sleeping with Ptolemy the Piper. We see Berenice go through two marriages and still manage to retain her power. She’s an interesting character study because she must balance kindness toward her sister Arsinoe with strength and never letting her people see her be soft. I thought this dynamic made Berenice seem relatable, as sometimes we have to present different faces for different situations. Furthermore, it is as though Holleman examines femininity and ruling power and how the two can converge and what they both mean.

For all of it’s strengths though, I do not think that Cleopatra’s Shadows is the greatest book I have ever read. The pacing comes across as painstakingly slow at moments. There is a disconnect in the characters and their age appropriateness. I never really felt any strong emotions while reading – in fact, this book feels dispassionate to me. So, I would recommend it if you are hardcore into Ancient Egypt. I would also recommend it for its depiction of powerful women in ancient society.

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April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.
About April (Books&Wine)

April is in her 30s and created Good Books And Good Wine. She works for a non-profit. April always has a book on hand. In her free time she can be found binge watching The Office with her husband and toddler, spending way too much time on Pinterest or exploring her neighborhood.


  1. This sounds really interesting, I do love Ancient Egypt and Cleopatra! And it’s always nice to read from other points of view rather than the main historical figure. I do have problems with young characters sounding like adults though, so that gives me pause. And it’s too bad it didn’t feel more emotional. But I might check this out, awesome review!

  2. I love reading about Cleopatra and also of Ancient Egypt, but as soon as I read “painstakingly slow” I knew I’d never pick this up. I have issues with pace and know I will never finish it if it gets too slow.