Whether you know about Kleopatra from history books or the Richard Burton/ Elizabeth Taylor epic, you'll find a new twist on the familiar in these fascinating and intriguing novels. (Ms. Essex spells Kleopatra with a "K" because of the queen's ties to the Greek culture.)

Essex sketches Kleopatra's childhood and rise to power, as she accompanies her weak father into exile in Rome, and later serves as co-regent with him. Upon his death, she marries her half-brother, but eventually she must fight against him and his advisors by raising an army with her lover. At the end of KLEOPATRA, she is 22—and awaiting Julius Caesar.

PHARAOH starts with the famous rolled-in-a-rug scene in front of the great Caesar. As part two unfolds, Kleopatra's lust for power and intrigue make her the perfect partner for him. She is not beyond using sex, spies or intrigues to gain political power. After Caesar's death, she allies herself with Marc Antony with whom she has a powerful and heated love.

This extremely well researched biography leans toward a more political and feminist portrait. Kleopatra is not just a sensual woman, but a woman drawn to politics and powerful men like a bee to honey. The attention to historical detail with everything from feasts to rituals to rules of state, along with a fast-paced and colorful picture of the key players, provides a strong read for those who enjoy their politics threaded with romance. SENSUAL (Dec., 400 pp., $24.95)
Reviewed by: 
Kathe Robin