He had me at the title.
Steampunk Cleopatra by Thaddeus Thomas released in May in the Historical Fantasy genre.
Amani, a companion of Cleopatra, seeks to rediscover Egypt’s suppressed science and history.
She is the beloved of her princess become queen, but that may not be enough to overcome the system they’ve inherited. If she fails, her country and Cleopatra, both, could fall. History meets fantasy, and together, they create something new. Experience an intelligent thriller about star-crossed lovers and an ancient science that might have been.
Thaddeus Thomas lives on the Mississippi River with his wife and three cats. Steampunk Cleopatra is his first novel, but he has a short story collection available at his website, ThaddeusThomas.com. There he also runs a book club where readers can receive indie book reviews and recommendation. His second book—Detective, 26 AD—releases July 9th and follows Doubting Thomas as he is conscripted to be an investigator for Pontius Pilate.
My original intent was not steampunk. I wanted to write about the Library of Alexandria, and once I looked at the period of history that covered, I knew I wanted to focus on the Cleopatra years. The draw of the library is its loss and the vast array of information it claimed to hold. What secrets were destroyed with it?
I could have approached that subject in several ways. The Museum (Mouseion, literally “seat of the muses”) of which the library was a part has been described as an early prototype for the modern university. If the information lost was magical, I very easily could have turned it into a magical-school story, but I didn’t want that for many reasons. First, other people are telling those stories. Second, it felt disrespectful to the work of the library to make magic the answer.
Instead, I found my way in a mix of two different inspirations. First, the Ptolemaic dynasty was a colonizing force. Ptolemy was a Macedonian Greek, one of Alexander’s generals. The scientific discoveries made in the library in its first few hundred years are astounding, and I questioned why that was. Did the explosions of knowledge come out of nowhere, born purely out of the genius of this colonizing force or did the Ptolemies do what colonizers always do: exploit; suppress; and supplant? Maybe what we lost was the history and science stolen from Egypt.
That brought me to the next question. What science could we be describing here? We know many of the achievements of the library. This had to be something beyond that, and yet something built naturally from it. That brought me to Hero of Alexandria who in the first century C.E. built the world’s first steam engine. He saw it as a novelty and couldn’t find a practical use for it. What it demonstrated, however, was that the potential existed in the classical world for an industrial revolution.
When you open the book, you are probably expecting an immediate steampunk fantasy world, but it begins in a true-to-life Alexandria, as it was in the early years of Cleopatra’s life. Some of the technical wizardry of the age is highlighted, but there is very little fantasy in those opening chapters. This is not an alternate history but a hidden one. It claims to be our world and begins and ends with history as we know it. In between, hidden within the cracks of history, we find steampunk.
I have compared about a quarter of the book to the movie National Treasure, only set in Classical Egypt. Where such stories usually end with the treasure found, I wanted to see what might happen if they applied this lost technology to antebellum Alexandria. Do the people responsible for this ancient technology benefit from its return, or are they simply exploited further?
That’s not as simple an answer as you might think. Colonizers act like colonizers, but the other aspect of history re-examined here is Cleopatra herself. Much of what we think we know, after all, is Roman propaganda. She was a brilliant woman whose work on medicine was itself collected in the Library of Alexandria. She spoke many languages and was the first Ptolemaic Pharaoh to speak Egyptian. She engaged directly with the rituals of the people in ways her predecessors never did. We see much of this in the book, but her relationship with the people is symbolized in her love for her childhood companion, the book’s main character, Amani.
The story is told through the eyes of Philostratos, tutor to Amani and Cleopatra, but the story is Amani’s. She is a Black Egyptian of Nubian descent and wins her place as Cleopatra’s companion through personality and intellect. The book is Philostratos’s attempt to grapple with his role in her history.
In that sense, it is very much a book for this time. The flow of history has shaken many of us and challenged our core beliefs. Maybe we are not who we thought we were, and perhaps, clinging to that old mythology is not the way to move forward. Perhaps, there is a better way.
Social Media Links:
Book Club: www.club.thaddeusthomas.com