REVIEW: In Thrall to the Enemy Commander by Greta Gilbert
Cleopatra’s slave girl and an enemy Roman soldier…
Egyptian slave Wen-Nefer is wary of all men. But she can’t help but be captivated by handsome Titus, adviser to Julius Caesar, even though he is commanding and intolerant of bold women like her. Their affair is as all-consuming as it is forbidden. But is he a man who will go to any lengths to love her despite their boundaries…or a sworn enemy she must never trust?
Dear Ms. Gilbert,
Wow, a historical romance set in Egypt. Those aren’t thick on the ground so despite the “heroine as a slave” aspect which didn’t thrill me, when I saw this book, I wanted to try it. I ended up pleasantly surprised and pleased with Wen’s courage and intelligence. After all, it’s impressive that Wen could learn fluent Latin by serving beer to boozy legions in Alexandria.
Wen-Nefer wasn’t always a slave serving beer in a bar. Once she was a part of the Temple of Hathor, trained by the High Priestess herself. Then after the political purges of Ptolemy XII Auletes, she was sold into slavery. Her fate takes a turn when a mysterious man buys her then takes her to the camp of Queen Cleopatra outside of Alexandria. The Queen and her brother (also named Ptolemy) are fighting for control of Egypt and soon Wen is plunged into the turbulent life of her Queen. Cleopatra needs Wen to be her ears among the Romans as she tries to woo Caesar, and his Legion, to her side. But Caesar has his own spy. Titus has his own agenda and after Ptolemy’s siege of Alexandria has brought Cleopatra and Caesar almost to their knees, will Titus save the day and the woman he’s come to love?
I love all the historical data and way it’s included by having Wen first learn about it and see it. That is much less “historical lesson time, oh and there will be a quiz at the end” than some books I’ve read. But at the same time, and yes I admit I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, the historical action aspect of the book faltered at times to allow for this.
Party hardy? Wow, it would be hard to find a modern match for the Alexandrian feasts of yore. Those people knew how to throw down and enjoy themselves. Party til you puke and wake up somewhere you don’t know with someone you don’t know and have a new tattoo. But wait, it’s better! Their religion – keeping everything in balance – requires them to party like rock stars. It’s ma’at (heavenly balance) and tryphe – the Ptolemaic opulent lavishness. It’s funny when during the party, the stuffy steward puts Titus in his place about respecting Egyptian culture. Kudos that the Egyptians are proud of how they dress and think it’s perfectly natural.
I like that Wen admires Cleopatra not because she’s powerful or pretty but because she’s done something for the poor of Alexandria when she didn’t have to – and after her elder sister Berenice acquired a taste for even more finery than she already had. Wen’s background remained murky to me for a while but eventually it’s all explained and makes historical sense. Titus didn’t seem quite as fledged out beyond his secret spy status and his muscles that Cleopatra’s women ooed and aaahed over.
One of the main points of contention between Titus and Wen is over the status of women – something that actually seemed period in that Titus views them as nice to enjoy himself with but they’re pretty much all the same. He’s kind and makes sure they enjoy their time with him but for discussions and intellectual pursuits – are you kidding? Talk about serious matters with women? Pshaw. He and the other Romans also think the Egyptians’ ideas of women being equal to men is nuts. Wen, however, sets him back on his heels and out rhetorics him despite his own training and then she verbally outflanks him and tricks something out of him that he was determined to keep secret. Go Wen. And Titus doesn’t then go all pissy and get mad that she bested him. Instead – he’s impressed.
Then there is the matter of his views of Wen as a slave. Titus says she is “just a slave” and Wen knows that is true but she also knows her worth – her intelligence, her courage and her devotion to her Queen. She doesn’t shrink from what she is but instead is determined to prove it not only to him but more importantly, to herself. She must be, as the old woman who tends the Lighthouse tells her, a tester who sets challenges for herself instead of staying safe. And this is something Wen does when she whips out her knife and goes to Titus’s aid. Again – go Wen.
I wondered what Titus would do in his role as a spy for the Republic and the answer was sort of wishy-washy. He ends up making his decision based on other feelings and as this is a romance book, I can’t fault them but still – I also wonder just where he and Wen are going to end up and how they’ll act in the years to come and how the coming major events will impact them.
The historical detail impressed me and the way it was woven into the story without it seeming either belabored or a class lesson. The conflict between Wen and Titus is well done and I loved seeing Wen come into her own and grow in confidence. The balance between the romance and the action faded in and out and a bit more surety about how Wen and Titus would weather the upcoming years of storms would have been nice but overall I liked this one. B-