Hand of Isis +Black Ships by Jo Graham Review

Last year Jo Graham made her debut as a novelist with Black Ship, a poignant and intimate re-working of the story of Vergil’s Aeneid, set in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, a world poised on the brink of collapse. Graham remains firmly entrenched in the Antique world with her second novel though it is set in a much later period where the Hellenistic culture that spread throughout the Ancient world in the wake of Alexander the Great now is on the retreat before Roman expansion.

Jo Graham

In Hand of Isis Graham takes on yet another well-known story, that of Cleopatra, and re-casts it in a new form that not only is fresh and unique but connects with Black Ships in a manner that suggests that these two books very well may be parts of a larger, loosely structured series, which the author herself refers to as Numinous World.

It takes guts to take on the story of Cleopatra, who was the last pharaoh of Egypt and mother of Julius Caesar’s only son. Cleopatra is infamous and her story has been retold and interpreted countless times throughout the centuries – in drama (William Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra), on film (portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra from 1963), on TV (in the HBO show Rome), in opera (Jules Massenet’s Cléopâtre from 1914) and in literature (Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Colleen McCullough’s Anthony and Cleopatra). Despite such an overwhelming legacy of different cultural interpretations Graham has admirably managed to come up with a fresh take on the life and death of Cleopatra by supplying her with two fictional half-sisters and focusing on their story:

Once, in a palace by the sea, there were three sisters born in the same year.

The eldest was born in the season of planting, when the waters of the Nile receded once more and the land lay rich and fertile, warm and muddy, and waiting for the sun to quicken everything to life. She was born in one of the small rooms behind the Court of Birds, and her mother was a serving woman who cooked and cleaned, but who one day had caught Ptolemy Auletes’ eye. Her skin was honey, her eyes dark as the rich flood waters. Her name was Iras.

The second sisters was born under the clear stars of winter, while the land greened and grain ripened in the fields, when fig and peach trees nodded laden in the starry night. She was born in a great bedchamber with wide windows open to the sea, and five Greek physicians in attendance, for she was the daughter of Ptolemy Auletes’ queen, and her name was Cleopatra.

The youngest sister was born as the earth died, as the stubble of the harvest withered in the fields beneath the scorching sun. She was born beside the fountain in the Court of Birds, because her mother was a blond slave girl from Thrace, and that is where her pains took her. Water fell from the sky and misted her upturned face. Her hair was the color of tarnished bronze, and her eyes were blue as the endless Egyptian sky. Her name was Charmian.

Once, in a palace by the sea, there were three sisters. All the stories begin so.

Graham has very wisely refrained from making the famous Egyptian queen the protagonist and instead tackles the well-known story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony through the POV of a fictional character, in this case Cleopatra’s fictional half-sister Charmian. She, and the reader with her, thus effective serves as a witness to the important events and figures of the historical period in question. It is a device often employed in historical fiction as it offers the author much more leeway in terms of artistic licence in the face of historical fact. Charmian is, however, not a wholly fictional character. She and Iras was indeed real historical figures, handmaidens in the service of Cleopatra, and they are briefly mentioned in the Roman historian Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s death. Apart from these meagre facts nothing much is known about them and Graham has thus bee free to invent their characters, using Charmian’s POV as a means to present a fresh take on a well-known story, much like she did with the character of Gull in Black Ships.

The story of Cleopatra is very well-known and since Graham doesn’t depart from the historical facts in any significant degree I won’t give a detailed recap of the story but rather discuss other aspects of the novel. Hand of Isis is a piece of historical fiction with a discrete supernatural element, much like Graham’s previous novel with which it shares the more intimate perspective of a female protagonist at a slight remove from the scene of politics and power. Hand of Isis is first and foremost a story about sisterhood, loyalty and female empowerment.

Though Iras, Cleopatra and Charmian all are daughters of the pharaoh their social status are vastly disparate and their bond is by no means “natural” and self-evident. Iras and Charmian began their lives as slaves and their bond with their royal half-sister is forged through friendship and affection when they are very young; at a time when Cleopatra is but a younger child eclipsed by her adult siblings who are maneuvering for political power in an environment where it wasn’t uncommon for siblings to kill each other.

Their bond of friendship is not only strengthened by ties of kinship and love but also with a deep-felt sense of duty and obligation towards Egypt itself, a sentiment that evolves during at a time when Egypt is particularly unstable politically. Their father Ptolemy Auletes is in exile in Rome, the girls in Bubastis while Cleopatra’s older sisters compete for the pharaoh’s crown with a murderous intent. Taking Isis as her patron goddess, the twelve-year-old Cleopatra and her sisters pledge themselves as the hands of the goddess if Cleopatra can take the throne, to care for the welfare of the people of Egypt. Thus when Cleopatra and her father return from exile to wrest government of the land away from her treacherous older sister, Iras and Charmian ascends to positions of considerable influence and power as Cleopatra’s handmaidens – a position that Graham portrays as something akin to a personal assistant/secretary to a head of state. Iras is in charge of the treasury and diplomatic correspondence while Charmian functions more like an event planner.

Graham has once again employed a first-person narrative, which not only lends the story a very intimate tone but also grounds it firmly in the more mundane and domestic aspects of life at court since Charmian is in charge of the practical side of things in Cleopatra’s household. This focus on the mundane not only conveys a sense of realism but also works as a counterpoint to the political intrigues that form an integral part of the story. The first-person narrative is one that is limited in scope and since Charmian really isn’t much of a player in the game of politics and intrigue many of the important political events (such as the first meeting between Cleopatra and Caesar, etc.) take place off-stage.

Apart from Cleopatra’s historical visit to Rome right before the assassination of Caesar, the story is very much rooted in the land of Egypt, which Graham evokes into a vivid and vibrant presence. From the cities of Thebes and Abydos, already ancient in Hellenistic times, to Cleopatra’s capital Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast. Graham has created a vivid impression of Alexander’s city – a metropolis of the ancient world teeming with people from all corners of the Antique world; the stronghold of the Hellenistic culture; a place of learning and scientific exploration and the final resting place of Alexander the Great. Graham has successfully conjured the city as a real and vibrant place, from the stately palace to the famous library and the Jewish quarter. She also uses the contrast between Alexandria and the more ancient cities to highlight the composite nature of Cleopatra’s Egypt. Alexandria was founded by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great and it became the primary seat of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the Greek aristocracy.

The language of state was not Egyptian but Koine Greek and the dominant culture was Hellenic as well – yet Graham also gives the reader a tantalizing glimpse of the ancient and enduring Egyptian culture when she lets Cleopatra undergo the primarily mystical and spiritual coronation rite of the ancient pharaohs at the temple of Osiris in Abydos. The Ptolemaic dynasty only partly assimilated the culture of ancient Egypt (they did adopt the custom of marrying brother to sister) but Cleopatra was rather special as she was the only one of the Ptolemies that learned to speak the Egyptian language as well as adopting the Egyptian goddess Isis as her patron deity, presenting herself as the living avatar of Isis.

Graham’s portrayal of Cleopatra is another strong point. Though Hand of Isis primarily is Charmian’s story, Cleopatra plays a very large role. On top of that, Cleopatra is a figure that has had such a long history as an object of fascination in Western culture that the historical person is almost buried beneath layers and layers of representations founded upon fantasy and fear. She has long held the place as one of the ultimate femme fatales of the Western imaginary, a woman whose reputed beauty and sexual appeal turned the heads of two of Rome’s great men, leading them into ruin. In countless works of art Cleopatra has invariably been represented as the exotic Other, alluring but dangerous, enveloped in an aesthetics of death that often has served as an excuse to titillate the sense with representations of naked female flesh.

Thankfully, Graham dispenses with this heritage discarding the myth of Cleopatra’s seductive wiles in favour of a sympathetic representation of the Egyptian queen as an intelligent and politically astute ruler who cares deeply for her country and its people – a queen who will go to great lengths in order to ensure the continued independence of her country and who is not above using her own body as a bargaining chip in the game of thrones. As said, Graham discards the image of Cleopatra as a femme fatale, replacing it with the image of her as an intelligent and caring rule.

The Cleopatra of Hand of Isis is, in fact, a predominantly maternal figure, an aspect that Graham emphasizes quite early in the narrative when the three sisters share an encounter of supernatural character. When Iras, Cleopatra and Charmian, at the age of twelve, pledge themselves to the welfare of Egypt they share a vision of the goddess Isis, who appears to each of them in a different incarnation. Iras sees Isis as the Lady of the Halls of Amenti, the Lady of the Dead; Cleopatra sees Isis as the Mother of the World and Charmian sees Isis Pelagia, Queen of Love and Desire. Each of these visions reveals important characteristics of the three characters: the solitary and scholarly Iras, the maternal Cleopatra and the beautiful, sensual and alluring Charmian.

Hand of Isis is more a piece of historical fiction than it is fantasy though it does have a discrete supernatural element such as the aforementioned vision of Isis. Though the narrative begins in the Halls of Amenti, the Egyptian afterlife, where Charmian has to account for her life and her choice before Isis and Serapis, these sections serve primarily as a device to frame and structure the narrative, to temper the immediacy of the first-person perspective with the wisdom of hindsight. Within the historical narrative the supernatural only manifests in the form of visions, presentiments and memories from previous lives.

The theme of reincarnation is quite prominent as Charmian quite often experiences memories belonging to previous incarnations. Thus the astute reader can detect subtle references to the story of Black Ships and there are also multiple references to Graham’s next novel Stealing Fire (forthcoming in March 2010). The theme of reincarnation binds these novels (and future books) loosely together in series that recounts the adventures of one soul in its many different incarnations – the priestess and oracle Gull, the handmaid Charmian and the soldier Lydias. The discrete character of the supernatural works quite well and the theme of reincarnation lend a sense of unity to some very disparate historical novels, but Graham should be very careful in the use of this device. If the series becomes too long, and the reincarnated characters too closely connected to momentous historical events, she might risk to put too much of a strain on the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Minor flaws aside, Hand of Isis is a very good historical fantasy in the vein of Marion Zimmer Bradley. She successfully reinterprets history from a female perspective thus vindicating a much reviled historical figure while at the same time evoking a vivid impression of the ancient world. The supernatural is for the most part discreet and subtle, and if the novel lacks the haunting quality that made Black Ships such an intense and extraordinary reading experience, Hand of Isis is still very good entertainment that can be recommended to anyone who likes both historical and fantasy fiction.

Jo Graham

Jo Graham embarks on an ambitious project with her debut Black Ships as she Graham reinterprets the story of The Aeneid, re-locating Prince Aeneas and his quest for a new homeland to the late Bronze Age of the Mediterranean world.

While The Aeneid functions as the primary frame of reference for the narrative of Black Ships, Graham has relegated Aeneas to a supporting character. Instead, the story is told through the voice of Gull (who is later re-named Linnea, Pythia, Sybil), a girl born into bondage by her Trojan mother. Gull, a child of war and rape, is born in Pylos on the Peloponnesian Island. She and her mother are slaves to the king of Pylos, the spoils of the war that left Troy (called Wilusa in the novel) in ruins. As a young child, Gull becomes the victim of an accident that leaves her crippled and her mother gives her into the care of Pythia, the local oracle and priestess to the Lady of the Dead. When Pythia discovers that Gull has the gift of prophecy, she takes the child as her acolyte, training her to become Pythia after her own passing.

Gull’s first true vision (“black ships and a burning city”) turns out to be of supreme importance in her own life, setting her on a wholly different course than what she had expected. Years later, Gull makes an important choice when nine black ships, captained by an exiled Trojan prince, enter the harbour of Pylos to avenge yet another raid of Wilusa-That-Was. Acting as the voice of the Lady of the Dead, Gull chooses to join Aeneas (or Neas as he is affectionately called) and the remainder of her mother’s people to search for a new home. The Wilusan refugees suffer many dangers, both on sea and on land, before they find a temporary haven in Egypt, the super-power of the Ancient world. Here, Aeneas enters into a love affair with the princess Basetamon, the sister and vice-regent of Pharaoh Ramses III. Egypt is a tempting place, a land of wealth and peace that can offer the Wilusans a safe home. However, their journey is not yet at an end. Driven by visions from the Lady of the Dead and the increasing madness of Basetamon, Aeneas, Gull and the rest of the Wilusans embark upon a sea journey that ultimately will lead them to the lands of Italy and the founding of city (Rome) that one day will become the ruler the Mediterranean world.

Jo Graham has set herself very difficult task by engaging with one of the masterpieces of Western literature. Luckily, she manages to successfully re-cast The Aeneid as a more intimate story of one woman’s journey across a world in turmoil. Virgil’s epic poem was authored in the 1st century BC as homage to the Augustan Empire, providing a foundation myth for Rome. Since then, it has become a classic of Western literature. Though The Aeneid is the primary inspiration behind Black Ships, the novel only engages with it on a rather latent level. Graham has retained the central characters as well as the bare bones of the original tale, but she shifts the epic perspective of Virgil’s poem to the more intimate perspective of a female protagonist. Furthermore, the story’s events has been adapted to a Bronze age setting, informed by recent scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean world. To a large extent, Graham adopts Marion Zimmer Bradley’s approach in The Mists of Avalon and The Firebrand. Like Zimmer Bradley, Graham takes a well-known heroic myth and makes it her own by re-telling it from a woman’s perspective, in the process subverting and re-defining the heroic in terms both more mundane and accessible yet every bit as remarkable. It is a strategy that not only allows the author to explore and hypothesize about life and spirituality in the Bronze Ages but also offers some interesting possibilities for characterization.

Black Ships opens very beautifully in a prose, reminiscent of Jacqueline Carey, which establishes Gull’s violent heritage and hints at her future destiny in concise and measured cadences:

“You must know that, despite all else I am, I am of the People. My grandfather built fishing boats, my mother said, and once worked on one of the great ships that plied the coast and out to the islands. My mother was his only daughter. She was fourteen and newly betrothed when the City fell.

The soldiers took her in the front room of the house while her father’s body cooled in the street outside. When they were done with her she was brought out to where the ships were beached outside the ring of our harbour, and the Achaians drew lots for her with the other women of the city.

She fell to the lot of the Old King of Pylos and was brought across the seas before the winter made the trip impossible. She was ill on the vessel, but thought it the motion of the ship. By the time she got to Pylos it was clear that it was more than that.

King Nestor was old even then, and he had daughters of the great houses of Wilusa to spin and grind meal for him, slaves to his table and loom. He had no use for the daughter of a boat-builder whose belly already swelled with the seed of an unknown man, so my mother was put to the work of the linen slaves, the women who tend the flax that grows along the river.

I was born there at the height of summer, when the land itself is sleeping and the Great lady rules over the lands beneath the earth while our world bakes in the sun. I was born on the night of the first rising of Sothis, though I did not know for many years what that meant.”

Graham cannot, however, maintain this level in her prose and wisely settles into a more spare style that works quite well as an almost transparent vehicle for the story and its characters. She retains the first-person narrative, which imbues the story with an intimacy akin to the memoir.

As an effect of the first-person narrative, Gull naturally functions as the absolute focus of the story. Black Ships is first and foremost her story, and only incidentally the tale of Aeneas and the foundation of Rome. Gull is in many was a character that stands apart from the people around her, something that repeated is emphasized by the fact that people mostly addresses her with her title (Pythia, Sybil) and not with the name her mother gave her. As the story progresses, that name becomes a mark of intimacy and affection, a mark of emotional bonds beyond her responsibility to the group. As priestess to the goddess of Death, Gull has been set apart from ordinary people at a very young age. Not only does she have the burden of prophecy, but her wows also place her under certain restrictions; she is, fx, forbidden to marry. The fact that she ritually serves as the incarnation of the goddess functions as another barrier. She is marked by a deep sense of isolation and one get the feeling that her life very easily could have kept her aloof from the joys of life if not for the arrival of Aeneas. From the very beginning, Gull connects most deeply to both Aeneas and Xandros, his right-hand man. She serves not only as oracle and priestess to the group, but also as a trusted friend and advisor to Aeneas. In many ways, the outward journey of the Trojan refugees also functions as an inward for Gull as a human being. As the story and the journey progresses, Gull evolves as a person that is more than a human link to the divine. Her strength, courage and compassion is tested by much hardship and her relationships with both Aeneas and Xandros slowly and gradually draws her into the joys and sorrows of life. One of the strengths of Black Ships is, in fact, Graham’s ability to depict complex characters and deep-felt relationships. Apart from Gull, Graham also delivers a fine portrayal of both Aeneas and Xandros. The first, a man of great courage and moral integrity – a reluctant prince, who feels a great responsibility towards his people. The second, a man of quiet strength, strong passions and unswerving loyalty – and wounded by a great loss. Graham portrays the relationship between these three characters with both subtlety and feeling, yet I cannot help but feel that the novel would have benefitted immensely if she had tried to push these characters a bit harder.

Another of the novel’s strengths is the meticulous attention to historical detail that Graham exhibits. She paints a vivid picture of a world in crisis, a world where almost all of the ancient powers have fallen. Mighty cities – Troy/Wilusa, Thera, Knossos and Ugarit – have been destroyed and only Egypt exhibits economic stability. This sense of loss and crisis remain constant throughout the story. In this context, the short stop that Aeneas’ ships make at the Island of the Dead – Thera That Was – marks a quite important point in the story, both structurally and character-wise. Thera (Santorini), a once thriving civilization laid waste by a volcanic eruption, prompts Gull to speculate on the state of the world around her, to wonder why old and strong cities are falling and populations are dwindling. Structually, Thera also marks the point in the story where it is decided that they should search for a new home. It is metaphorically in the place of Death that the hope of a new home, a new beginning is born. The theme of rebirth from death is pervasive throughout the novel, both literally and symbolically. The refugees quite literally build a new life from the ashes of their old life, and Gull’s Lady of the Dead is also a goddess of life and rebirth (a much older deity than the Greek pantheon), her holy places in the earth understood as both tomb and womb.

Black Ships is a novel that is rather difficult to categorize. It paints a detailed and quite accurate picture of the Mediterranean world during the late Bronze Age (circa 1200 BC), yet it is not a straight-forward piece of historical fiction. Gull is clearly guided by supernatural force of some kind, but there isn’t really any presence of magic as in the more traditional fantasy novels. Although Gull in a few instances interact directly with a supernatural being (and those sections are, in my opinion, among the less successful aspects of the novel), the presence of the divine is mostly rather intangible. Black Ships is, in the author’s own words, set in a numinous world – that is, a world suffused by spirit. This is perhaps the best way to describe the manner in which Graham’s novel differs from the traditional historical novel.

Neither fantasy nor historical fiction, Black Ships is a novel that first and foremost engages in a dialogue with the workings of myth. It unravels and re-casts well-known myths and explores their possible historical roots while at the same time hinting at folk/cultural memory as a place where momentous events are retained, embellished and transformed into legend and myth. Jo Graham has taken a now legendary story, unravelled its possible historical roots and re-assembled it as beautiful and poignant tale of loss, courage and hope. Black Ships is an enchanting and deeply moving novel, and Jo Graham is an author to watch.