First things first, I need to say thank you to Hachette Children’s Books publishing, for accepting my request to review this title on NetGalley, and to NetGalley for the service that they provide.
I was intrigued by the idea of ‘Cleo’, as it’s a YA retelling of the history of the famous Egyptian Pharaoh, Cleopatra, before her rise to the throne. I have always been extremely interested in Egyptian mythology, so the idea of changing Cleo’s story to make it more appealing for a YA audience was something I was extremely on board with.
However, it just didn’t seem as effective as I’d been expecting. The novel starts with the death of Cleo’s mother, who we discover was pushed down a flight of stairs by Cleo’s “Evil Sow Sisters” Berenice and Tryphena, all in a bid for them to claim the Pharaoh’s throne as their own. Cleo knows she’s next, so she flees from the palace with her slave Charm, to the safety of the temple of Isis, where she vows to dedicate her life to worshipping the God that claimed her before birth. We then jump forward four years, joining Cleo at the temple of Isis, where she gets sent on a mission back to Alexandria to retrieve a map stating a location where Isis can regain some of her waning powers.
None of that sounds bad to me – in fact it sounds like a high octane adventure novel, with murder and impossible quests throughout. But the reality was completely different: the death of Cleo’s mother and her journey to the temple dragged on for an extremely long period of time, and it definitely seemed to suck the life out of the book. I would have been a lot more interested in joining Cleo at the goddess temple and finding out how she ended up there, but unfortunately the entire first section of the story just read like an extremely unnecessary and lengthy prologue.
From there, it did pick up – it just didn’t pick up by a lot. Cleo reflects on her behaviour shortly following her mother’s death, chastising herself for being so childish and throwing a temper tantrum, but then proceeds to act like a child at every possible opportunity, making her one of the most frustrating protagonists of all time. Cleo repeatedly gets told not to tell anyone about the reason behind her return to Alexandria, but Cleo then turns around and tells her best friend Charm instantly, proving that for Isis’s “Chosen One” she really doesn’t take the job description too seriously. She cements this by recklessly kissing the spy who infiltrated the Pharaoh’s palace for them at a young age, risking all of their lives and the mission security in the process.
I did like ‘Cleo’; it wasn’t an absolutely terrible book, even if there were a couple of things that did make me want to groan with exasperation. It all just seemed too convenient: while being chased there was always a door left carefully ajar for them to hide behind, and it always seemed a bit too easy for Cleo to sneak around – as a high priestess and a princess I definitely think there would have been more spies keeping an eye out for her, rather than just one or two. The problem for me was that it all just seemed a bit too young: ‘Cleo’ feels more like a middle-grade novel than a young adult novel, because noting of young adult standard really happened here.
If you like stories about Egyptians that use a rough outline of the mythologies but in more of a ‘Cinderella’ plot line, you’ll definitely like this book – it reads much better as a ‘Cinderella’ adaptation than an adaptation of the stories I’ve heard about Cleopatra. If you’re looking for something based on a serious topic, but with less hard-hitting scenes and language than a young adult novel, I’d definitely recommend this one for you. I’m just not sure this was the book for me, and that’s not Lucy Coats fault! Her writing style is definitely unique, and the Egypt that she paints is realistic: the amount of language that I needed to look up because it referred to some obscure Egyptian delicacy really brought the book to life. I just think the audience is a bit younger than that of the books that I normally read.
When the sequel to ‘Cleo’ comes out, I’ll probably end up having a go at it – the book leaves off on a bit of a cliffhanger, and I am interested to see what happens, because the characters are all fleshed out and realistic – but it’s not going to be one of my priorities.