THE PTOLEMIES

Duncan Sprott, Author . Knopf $25.95 (496p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4154-1

Sprott chronicles the calamitous, ill-fated reign of the first Greek pharaoh of Egypt in his fascinating but overstuffed third novel, a historical reconstruction that traces the rise and fall of Ptolemy, the alleged son of King Philip of Macedonia. The initial chapters chart Ptolemy's ascension from soldier to leader in Egypt, where he becomes a satrap, keeping the body of the late Alexander the Great around as a good luck charm. After consolidating his power, Ptolemy agonizes over the decision to declare himself pharaoh while facing military challenges from a parade of enemies; he also must overcome emotional fallout from his exhausting relationship with his two wives, Berenike and Eurydice. Sprott's sardonic style serves him particularly well in the over-the-top battle for succession that develops during Ptolemy's decline, with the tone of the clash determined by the incest between his daughter, Arsinoë Beta, and his violent, unpredictable son Keraunos. Sprott's scholarship and his command of the material is formidable and impressive, and structurally the novel hangs together despite the author's insistence on documenting much of the historical minutiae of Ptolemy's reign. But readability suffers: Sprott writes largely in summary with almost no dialogue, and the combination of too many secondary characters and subplots and Sprott's insistence on revisiting over previously covered material turns an entertaining story into a long, monotonous trudge. With a narrowed focus this might have been an impressive novel, and amateur scholars will find the book a worthwhile addition to the body of work on this underexplored period. But mainstream readers face a difficult, tedious read, and many will find themselves hard-pressed to stay the course. 12 maps. Agent, Faber & Faber . (May 14)

Reviewed on: 04/12/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 462 pages - 978-1-4000-7510-2
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