April 26, 2012

Book: When We Were Gods by Colin Falconer

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:57 am

Another great historical drama by Colin Falconer. Reminiscent in style of the story of Suleyman, Ottoman Empire’s last great Sultan, his earlier `Sultan’s Harem‘ (Reviewed here before)  this time, it is a story that is very well known and written about numerous times: the story of Cleopatra of Egypt. Again, he makes history come alive.

The reason this story resonates well with many readers is the same as the reason that many purists will be upset with the treatment: Colin tries to set the conversations and feelings in contemporary style. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony all talk like modern Americans. If you cannot digest Cleopatra saying things like `She is a bitch’ about another character because you are a historical purist and do not think that she would have spoken in such contemporary  terms,  then this book is definitely not for you. I prefer the tone and the scenes set by Colin. He has not twisted history, as Disney
famously did with many of their movies – The Little MermaidHercules just to name two,  are not faithful to the original stories – but has just made it contemporary.

The story comes alive and vibrant under his pen, where we follow Cleopatra as she is forced into Exile at a young age, betrayed to Rome by her own family. We follow her daring entry into Caesar’s presence under the very nose of her relatives, her gaining favour with Julius, and eventually emerging as a monarch in her own right – almost gaining the throne of Rome with Julius.

When Julius is murdered, and a triumvirate including the pimply, gangly and sickly youth called Octavian, Mark Anthony and another Imperator takes over, she begins anew. She loses her heart a second time to Marc Anthony.

The events that led to Marc Anthony’s disastrous failure, his drinking and womanizing, his descent from the heights of glory, where he could have snatched Rome easily from Octavian’s weak grasp to the ignominy of his defeat at the same Octavian’s hands are all brought out very well.

The story centres around Cleopatra, her trials and triumphs are well told. Her feelings in being instrumental in her more beautiful sister being brought in chains by Julius to Rome are interesting to read; her unease when her sister Arisnoe is allowed to live, albeit in exile is well etched. Her machinations in getting rid of her sister are ruthless.

The strategist that Cleopatra is, she is indispensable to Marc Anthony’s efforts in regaining his power; however, all around him snub her every chance they get, since she is a woman and `should not participate in affairs of men’.

The successive victories of Octavian against seemingly impossible odds, the game of cat and mouse played by him with Anthony and Cleopatra, the unfortunate failure of a cunning plan of Cleopatra to escape to Persia, the successive defeats that Marc Anthony and Cleopatra suffer due as much to lack of luck as to failure in war are all well described.

Her calm under pressure, the devotion of Mardian, her tutor from childhood and confidant for life, her capture by Octavian when Anthony dies and her subsequent choice of death (not by asp but by Cobra; not bitten at the breast but on her hand) which was known to Octavian who deliberately allowed it to happen – are all brilliantly told.

Even for those who know the outlines of the story, this should be a very interesting book, and it shares with other historical works of Colin, the quality of excellent narration.

A Great and enjoyable Read. This one gets a 8/10

— Krishna


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