Historical fantasy author Jo Graham portrays Cleopatra as guided by a loving family and Egypt's gods in Hand of Isis.
Why did you make the handmaiden Charmian your narrator instead of Cleopatra herself?
Charmian has a more critical eye. For example, Cleopatra is in love with Marcus Antonius, and she forgives him some fairly glaring flaws. Charmian, Cleopatra's sister, holds him accountable in a way Cleopatra doesn't. Having the queen as a narrator would also give me much less room to explore this world. I am enchanted by Alexandria, this wonderful place in this moment in time, and Charmian is able to be fully part of it in a way that the queen can't be. Charmian can go to plays and talk with scientists, visit markets and temples and really show us her city.
You go into a lot of detail about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and practices. How much of this turned up in your research and how much did you need to fill in?
I was very fortunate in having to make up very little. For example, the litanies of Isis and the other prayers and pieces of music are genuine. Occasionally I had to rearrange things a bit, or change what seemed to me to have been an awkward translation, or use something that came from a slightly earlier time, but litanies and prayers don't change quickly. It was absolutely fascinating to research, and something I have been able to delve into again in my next book, Stealing Fire, which comes out in the spring of 2010.
You have a number of themes running through the book that are tightly interwoven: love, service, faith, sacrifice, family. Does any one theme stand above the rest for you?
I think the themes are inseparable. In the first chapter, Charmian says she is Egyptian, and she is a Ptolemy. Being an Egyptian means, to her, respecting ma'at (justice) above all, and being true to the worship of Isis, the mother of the world. As a Ptolemy, part of the world's most successful ruling dynasty, she feels a keen responsibility to service. It's her divinely appointed responsibility to make sure that Egypt's people are protected not just from foreign threats but from bad water, disease, famine, all of the ills of the world that can be averted or mended.
Unfortunately, service isn't easy and being true to the responsibilities means making sacrifices. Kingship is about the compact between ruler and land, and when someone seeks power without taking responsibility the results are disastrous. And a real ruler must love the land and people, not just power. In the end, it's all about love.