fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSong of the Nile by Stephanie Dray Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

The sequel to Lily of the Nile, Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray continues the story of Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the more famous Cleopatra. In this installment, Selene marries, becomes queen of Mauretania, and continually longs and schemes for the return of her birthright: the throne of Egypt.

Song of the Nile begins with a prologue that refers to the myth of Persephone’s descent, and so we know from the start that this book will take Selene into some painful emotional territory. There are two elements here that may trouble some readers, so I’ll get those out of the way while also saying that, in my opinion, they are handled well and are not gratuitous.

The first of these is a rape. It’s strongly foreshadowed before it happens, and it’s completely in character for the perpetrator, Octavian, as Dray has developed him. It’s also, thankfully, not written in a titillating style at all. Selene goes through a believable period of self-doubt and then finds her anger, realizing that he broke a basic rule of civilized behavior and that he was wrong to blame her and her attire for the assault. Further complicating the situation is that he has so much power over Selene politically that it’s impossible to escape his orbit, and he’s also the only one who can grant Selene the thing she most wants.

The second unsettling element is incest. Selene’s brother Helios reappears at several points in the story and a sexual relationship develops between the two. Or does it? These scenes are written with a great deal of ambiguity, to the point that I suspect they’re dream sequences. A literal reading is plausible, but I’m more inclined to think the Helios of this book (as opposed to the one she grew up with in book one) is kind of an animus figure for her, onto whom she has projected desires she doesn’t dare indulge: the desire to defy Rome and the desire to have sex and love without political calculation. Or, to use Selene’s own metaphor, he’s her khaibit, the shadow where she hides these unwanted feelings.

Hopefully I haven’t scared you off yet, because Song of the Nile is a very good book, and a beautifully written one. It begins with Selene’s wedding to Juba, whom Octavian has named king of Mauretania. Selene and her new husband were friends once, but bitterness has arisen between them, and the marriage gets off to a disastrous start. It’s heartbreaking to read, because there are so many moments where they almost reach a truce, and then both characters’ anger and pride get in the way and make a mess of things yet again. We root for them to get it right, even as they get it wrong again and again. Meanwhile, Selene learns how to be a competent ruler, becomes a mother, and gets more in touch with her magical connection to Isis than ever before.

But as mentioned above, Selene can’t avoid Rome and Octavian for long. She sees a chance to regain Egypt for herself and her family, but it means returning to the political games of Octavian, this time with the previous trauma adding further pain to the experience. Selene must decide what she is willing to give up to achieve the goal she has cherished since childhood.

Song of the Nile moves a bit more slowly than Lily of the Nile, simply because there’s a large amount of waiting built into the plot. It can be frustrating, too, because during this wait Selene is trying to screw up her courage to do something that we readers don’t want her to do anyway, so it can make us want to shout at her through the pages even though it’s great character development. This isn’t just a descent story in terms of what others do to Selene, but also in terms of Selene potentially becoming a more “gray” character herself. And she has to reach this nadir, I think, to get to the epiphany she has at the climax.

This epiphany, when it comes, is wonderful, requires a heavy sacrifice from Selene, and fits fantastically well with the mythological themes that have been worked into the series from the very beginning. As for the ending, if Song of the Nile were the last book, I’d want to see Dray expand upon it. But another book is in the works, so I’m fine with this ending as it is. It may not be full daybreak yet, but we can see the sky lightening after the darkness that has gone before.

After the end of the novel, Dray includes substantial author’s notes in which she explains what’s real, what’s made up, and why she made the authorial decisions she did. For history geeks, this afterword is nearly as fascinating as the novel itself!

Song of the Nile is a worthy follow-up to Lily of the Nile and will be an addictive read for historical fiction and historical fantasy fans, as long as you’re not put off by the use of some dark themes. As for me, I’ll be first in line when book three hits the shelves.

Cleopatra’s Daughter — (2011-2013) Publisher: With her parents dead, the daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony is left at the mercy of her Roman captors. Heir to one empire and prisoner of another, Princess Selene must save her brothers and reclaim what is rightfully hers… In the aftermath of Alexandria’s tragic fall, Princess Selene is taken from Egypt, the only home she’s ever known. Along with her two surviving brothers, she’s put on display as a war trophy in Rome. Selene’s captors mock her royalty and drag her through the streets in chains, but on the brink of death, the children are spared as a favor to the emperor’s sister, who takes them to live as hostages in the so-called lamentable embassy of royal orphans… Trapped in a Roman court of intrigue that reviles her heritage and suspects her faith, Selene can’t hide the hieroglyphics that carve themselves into her flesh. Nor can she stop the emperor from using her for his own political ends. Faced with a new and ruthless Caesar who is obsessed with having a Cleopatra of his very own, Selene is determined to honor her mother’s lost legacy. The magic of Egypt and Isis remain within her. Can she succeed where her mother failed? And what will it cost her in a political game where the only rule is win or die?

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsSong of the Nile by Stephanie Drayfantasy and science fiction book reviews


fantasy and science fiction book reviews


  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.