The novel begins with the Roman invasion of Alexandria and the deaths of both Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Octavian, the leader of Rome, takes Cleopatra's children, Selene, Alexander, and Ptolemy back home as trophies. There are many other prisoners of Rome, slaves and royalty alike, who teach them how to manipulate the political system in their favour. Luckily, Selene and Alexander have Octavian's formidable sister, Octavia, on their side and she takes them in and treats them like her own children. Her slave, Gallia, instructs them about how to behave and endear themselves to Octavian, who holds their fate in his hands. The tactic they use is to outwardly give the appearance of loyalty and usefulness in the hopes of one day returning to Egypt. For Selene, the situation is very tenuous because it is made clear to her that she will be used as a political pawn once she is of marriageable age. There are examples of unhappy marriages and capricious divorces all around her, and so the future looks grim.
To feel some semblance of power over her life, she chooses to pursue her love of architecture. With the help of Octavia, Selene convinces an architect to mentor her and spends all of her spare time designing buildings and mosaics. Though Selene's story is compelling, I think that the novel's strength is in the focus on the social history of Rome. The role of women and slaves within the empire is heavily discussed amongst the characters and provides some of the most interesting subject matter. The story also moves really quickly and there is plenty of intrigue. There is a downside, however. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and unfortunately the facts aren't woven into the narrative as seamlessly as I would like. I felt there were times where the plot is bogged down with excess information and I think that it hurt the overall story. For the serious history buffs it might seem a little lightweight, but it's good entertainment with a large amount of social history.