Review: When We Were Gods

When We Were Gods: A Novel of CleopatraWhen We Were Gods
by Colin Falconer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When We Were Gods / 0-609-80889-3

Falconer shows his prowess yet again at bringing history to life, in a vivid landscape, dominated by a powerful (and yet deeply politically vulnerable woman) who is frighteningly compelling. Falconer seems to specialize in strong women who are fundamentally unreliable narrators and sometimes anti-heroes and yet we are drawn to their courage and we admire their drive and ambition, even when we do not agree with their motives.

You see this in "Feathered Serpent", as Malinali maneuvers the Spaniards to destroy her captors and their empire. You see this in "The Sultan's Harem", as the vicious Hurrem manipulates her husband and owner into demolishing his own kingdom. And now we see this in "When We Were Gods", as Cleopatra struggles to survive and prosper as more than just a Roman fiefdom.

Falconer woman are emotionally strong, and Cleopatra is no exception. Her romances with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius are initially motivated out of a fierce instinct for survival and a calculated gamble at something more - prosperity, greatness, lineage. Yet Cleopatra is not made of marble - she comes, over time and in spite of herself, to deeply and passionately love her two Roman "husbands" despite their betrayals. She comes to welcome their embraces, to continue to be shocked and hurt by their betrayals, and to cry at their deaths.

Rome was, Falconer correctly notes, a deeply racist culture in many ways, with laws against marrying foreigners or giving property to children of foreigners, and Falconer notes this in the treatment Cleopatra receives at the hands of her two Roman lovers. They will give her illegitimate children, but not their oaths of marriage. They will take her money and her army, yet they will not share their victories with her. Yet, despite all this, both men choose to overcome that tradition and upbringing and prove their faithfulness at the end - Julius, with an illegal will acknowledging his child; Antony, with refusal to save his own life by turning Cleopatra over to Octavian, even though he fears death. These men are truly strong, overcoming prejudices that have been ingrained in them from childhood, and Falconer praises them subtly for this feat, even through the veil of Cleopatra's fears and angers, the veil that makes her a compelling, yet unreliable narrator and forces us to weigh the actions of those around her against her interpretation of those actions and judge for ourselves.

I love this because Falconer specializes in unreliable narrators, and we see this in Cleopatra. She is wise, intelligent, and cunning, but we cannot believe everything she tells us. She is not the goddess that she believes herself to be, and she is not always the wonderful mother that she has decided she is. Her intense frustration and hatred of men is understandable - she has been betrayed countless times - but she comes to realize that she has been unfair to men - and to Romans - late in the novel, when the man she thought was most faithless of all has instead been pining for his leprous wife for decades. It is then that Cleopatra realizes that male, female, Egyptian, or Roman are all tags and names that are meaningless - one either is or isn't faithful, depending on one's character and choices. This is, I think, the crux of Cleopatra - the realization that dynasties come and go, but humanity thrives on.

~ Ana Mardoll

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