Book Review: Hand of Isis

June 5, 2009 by  
Filed under books, reviews

Hand of Isis
by Jo Graham
Orbit (March 23, 2009) $14.99
ISBN 978-0316068024
528 pages
Reviewer: Bronwen Forbes
Full starFull starFull starFull starFull star

When Graham’s first book, Black Ships, was released last year, the publicity materials claimed that the book did for the Aeneid (Virgil’s famous poem about Aeneas — mentioned in the Iliad — and his travels before settling in Italy and becoming the ancestor of the Romans) what The Mists of Avalon did for the Arthurian legend. As a huge Mists fan, I was skeptical, but I read and reviewed Black Ships with an open mind. And the publicity didn’t lie — the book was fantastic.

My question a few months ago was, could Graham’s second book, Hand of Isis, possibly be as good as her first, or would she be a one-hit wonder?

Hand of Isis is not as good as Black Ships. It’s better.

Graham has penned a detailed, gripping, readable account of the life of Cleopatra, told from the point of view of her half-sister and personal assistant, Charmian. All of the characters from the legend are brought to multi-dimensional life: Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, Caesar Augustus. In a question-and-answer section in the back of the review book, Graham reveals that her primary inspiration for the most famous Queen of the Nile was the late Princess Diana, another ruler who loved and served her people as best she could before an early tragic death.

In addition to telling a well-crafted story, Hand of Isis explores the notions of fate, destiny, and the price demanded of those who choose to serve Deity. The story is told as a flashback; Charmian has shared her sister’s fate and died of a poisonous asp bite, and is in Amenti being judged by the Gods for her actions and inactions in life. Slowly, kindly, the Gods allow Charmian to realize for herself that she made the best decisions possible based upon the information she had at the time — and because she, Cleopatra and their other sister Iras had been sworn companions in previous lifetimes.

“Do you think this is the only time you have served Cleopatra, or the only time you have stood before these thrones?” Anubis smiled, a hound’s openmouthed smile. “Three times before you have walked into the dark places at Pharoah’s side as he came forth by day. And not three hundred years have passed since you took Companion’s oaths together, not three hundred years since you swore yourself to the service of Egypt and the House of Ptolemy. And in fulfillment of those oaths, you returned as a member of the same House, of the same blood, no less than your sisters.”

Take care, Hand of Isis tells us, what oaths you may swear in this life, because oaths have a way of binding us throughout time to the same people and the same duties. Through these oaths we make our own destinies and not even the Gods can change the inevitable. The book illustrates this beautifully; Isis clearly has a plan for Charmian’s life — she has the psychic abilities and spiritual yearnings to be a priestess at Isis’ temple in Bubastis — but Charmian chooses instead to honor past oaths, reforge the bonds she made in past lifetimes and stay with her sisters. And that choice changes the history of the world in such a profound way that we are still telling the story two thousand years later. It’s also a choice that Charmian honors after death. I won’t give away the ending, but her decision to return to her loved ones is the most courageous part of the whole sad tale.

I don’t often keep the advanced review copies I receive. One exception is Hand of Isis. It will hold a place of honor on my personal bookshelf for a long time.

Review ©2009 Bronwen Forbes
Edited by Sheta Kaey

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