Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Hand of Isis by Jo Graham

I finished the last 100 pages of Hand of Isis this morning, when I woke up from a very weird dream at around half past 3 and couldn’t sleep anymore. I brewed up a cup of black coffee, got my cigarettes within reach, and settled in to read. Only when I set the book down did I realize that I hadn’t moved the whole time, except to reach for my long-empty cup and to light a cigarette; my bladder was killing me!

This is the kind of thing you can expect to happen to you, my friends, be forewarned! :-)

And I don’t mean that only the last hundred pages will capture you – the entire book will! But you know, things like work, having to eat and sleep sometimes, they will keep you away for a short time. :-) But you will always want to return to Hand of Isis. :-)

First, let me tell you about what a mission it was to get hold of this book! I’d been following Jo Graham on her LiveJournal for a while already after reading and reviewing Black Ships, and I saw an announcement on there that she was having giveaways for Hand of Isis – all that we had to do was leave a comment and she would pick the winners from the comment. So I left my comment, gushing about how I couldn’t wait to read Hand of Isis, and Jo replied, saying that she would get the publishers to send me a copy since I was reviewer. The copy gets sent off, and I’m practically sweating in anticipation… It arrives at my local post office… Sits there for probably two months… And I’m there every few days, asking and checking whether it’s arrived… But the post office staff are so third-bloody-world and couldn’t be bothered to do their jobs properly and don’t look for the package, telling me it hasn’t arrived! So, in the end, it gets sent back, because I haven’t collected it!

Well, I moan and groan about it to Liz over at My Favourite Books – she get’s in touch with a certain wonderful lady over at Little, Brown, and the book gets sent – but the address I gave (the bookshop where I used to work) effectively ceases to exist because the store, and the whole company, goes bankrupt and closes down! :-( No book. So I spill my sorrows on Liz again, and she gives me the wonderful lady at Little, Brown’s email address; after mailing her, explaining what happened and giving her my home address, I finally get the book! :-) Then I finish the books I was busy with at that time and settle down to read…

Hand of Isis is, in a nut shell, about learning what one’s place is in life, and learning to love that life and accept what comes. We are introduced to Charmian who, as with Gull in Black Ships, will take us through the world Jo imagined. And through Charmian, we will meet Cleopatra, Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, and a host of other characters, some of which seem comfortingly familiar… The tale that unfolds will echo in the hearts of everyone who reads the book because we’ve all been in the same situations the characters are placed in, and you will sink away into the story…

It’s easy, from the get-go, to see how comfortable Jo is in her writing, now; not that she wasn’t comfortable in Black Ships – her debut possessed a raw and fetching beauty, as Cleopatra was in her younger years, but Hand of Isis possesses the stately, knowledgeable and serenely confident beauty of Cleopatra after Gaius Julius Caesar. Jo knows now what she is capable of, having tested the waters, and I’m certain that we will be in awe of Stealing Fire, her next book, when it hits the shelves.

Everything that we came to admire about Jo’s writing has become orders of magnitude better – her characters are beautifully realized, so much so that you’ll find yourself wanting to actually meet them, observe them, talk with them. Having watched the HBO series Rome, read Asterix and Cleopatra and also read Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War, I’ve come to know many different incarnations of Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, as have many of you, I’m sure; the versions that live in Hand of Isis seem somehow more personal, as if we’ve been given an intimate glimpse of the real people behind the historical figures. Some, like Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) surprised me, others gained greater stature (Gaius Julius Caesar), and others I fell in love with (Charmian and Cleopatra herself). One of the marks of storytelling that will be long-remembered is the ability to create characters that live in your imagination, and consequently, your heart, and Jo’s has such a talent at this that if it could be solidified and prepared, a pyramid could be constructed! :-)

The worldbuilding in Hand of Isis, too, is far beyond what Jo achieved with Black Ships; the Alexandria of Charmian and Cleopatra is vibrant, beautiful, and immense, a character in itself with its own rhythms and moods. Even Rome is amazing! But the worldbuilding never drowns out the progress of the tale or the characters, either; it immerses you in the scents, sounds, sights and flavors of that time so that every page springs up like a 3-D landscape that you yourself travel through.

This is a tale to savour, to sink into, and to remember and fall in love with. Expect to be surprised by the strength and Jo’s vision, expect to book tickets with a time-travel agency to spend a few weeks in Cleopatra’s Egypt (and if you know of such an agency, let me know!), expect to feel all the emotions the characters feel, expect to feel and odd disappointment at the end of the book because you didn’t want it to end, and expect the shedding of tears…

I highly, highly recommend Hand of Isis to anyone, everyone, who loves good storytelling, wonderful characters, history-buffs (even though I’m not one and cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the novel), hopeless romantics… You will all love this book! :-)

C’mon, Jo! Stealing Fire! I need it! :-)


To order your copies of Hand of Isis, click here for the US, here for UK, and for those in SA, please use the link at the top of the page.

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