My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lydia, slave of Cleopatra, is not only lovely but also ambitious. Her artistic pottery is in demand and already she has collected a bag of coins against the day she can escape from the palace and start her own business. But the night Herod comes to visit, everything changes. Cleopatra, stymied in her attempt to seduce Herod, takes out her anger on those around her. After doing away with loose-lipped Andromeda, Lydia is in her sites.
Lydia, meanwhile, responds to an urgent call from her elderly Jewish friend Samuel. Determined to hear what he has to tell her, she goes to his home only to find it a shambles and the old man beaten and all but dead. With his last breath he entrusts her with an ancient parchment to deliver to Jerusalem and gives her a unique necklace. “It was your mother’s,” he manages to gasp—and he’s gone.
What’s she to do? Suddenly Herod’s earlier offer to take her with him from Alexandria to become a maid to his betrothed Mariamme seems like a good idea. And so the next day finds her on a boat fleeing murderous Cleopatra while on a secret and dangerous mission of her own.
We follow Lydia for the next few years as she travels from Egypt to Rome, on to Masada and finally Jerusalem in Tracy Higley’s historical fiction The Queen’s Handmaid. Lydia always manages to find work at the highest levels and so we get close-up glimpses of the political life and the power characters during the time period just before Christ.
The characters, real and fictional, are rendered vividly and with confidence. In a note at the end of the book Higley tells us what she was hoping to achieve. She invented Lydia as a fictional “witness” character through whom we would see some of the major political players of the day: Cleopatra, Caesar Augustus, Marc Antony, Herod, his sister Salome and wife Mariamme. As well, Higley’s own travels to Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem and Masada lend accuracy and detail to descriptions of the setting.
The plot kept me engrossed and pressing on to see what happens next. The intrigue in each palace made for great human interest and the author’s familiarity with the various locations gave me confidence that I was in good hands. Lydia, the orphan, is a sympathetic character in her search for identity and worth. Her romantic interest in Herod’s administrator Simon added another magnet to the plot.
If there was one thing that seemed little unbelievable, it was how Lydia always managed to be working for one of the land’s leading ladies (Cleopatra, Octavia, Mariamme). But that aside, The Queen’s Handmaid is a well-plotted, well-written historical fiction that I’m sure lovers of historical and biblical fiction will enjoy. A Reading Group Guide at the end of the book makes it a fine choice for book clubs as well.
I received an ebook version of The Queen’s Handmaid as a gift from Thomas Nelson for the purpose of writing a review.