Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 480 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: new
Rating: 3.5 stars (with prejudice)
Here again, I found myself liking the book more than it merited on any kind of technical appraisal. Nefertiti tells the story of Egypt’s famous queen and the upheaval of the Amarna period through the eyes of her younger sister, Mutnodjmet, known as Mutny. For those unfamiliar with Amarna, it was the western world’s first real experiment with institutional monotheism — Pharoah Amunhotep IV threw over the vast Egyptian pantheon in favour of the sun-disk Aten, for whom he re-named himself Akhenaten. This move created a huge scandal, not just for its blasphemy in the eyes of the Egyptians, but because he seized the money from the temples of the other gods, killed off the priests who objected, and built himself a new capital at Amarna, dedicating his entire life to the worship of the sun, rather than to defending Egypt from her enemies. The famously beautiful Nefertiti, his Chief Wife and Queen who bore him six daughters, is a bit of a shadowy figure in history — she enjoyed unprecedented status and power for a wife, but her life and death are both immersed in questions. Did she support Akhenaten’s religious upheaval, or did she have to go along with it for her own protection? Did she fall into disgrace for a period of time, exiled from the royal presence? Was she ever coronated as an official co-regent? Might she have reigned as Pharoah on her own after his death? How and when did she die? No one quite knows, but Moran plucks out a narrative and chooses a story for her.
It’s an interesting read, and Mutny’s story is certainly compelling. The author takes rather more historical liberties than I care for, and the view of Nefertiti isn’t quite flattering, at least through the first 95% of the book. Her transformation at the end seems to come out of nowhere — she manifests a strength suddenly that there was no hint of before, and it rings false. I’d have preferred it if we’d seen some of that all along, some inclination towards responsibility rather than the utterly frivolous, jealous queen she is through most of the book. So much of Nefertiti’s life, especially her rivalry with Kiya, seems like Ancient-Egypt-Does-High-School. (Also, I wish the map at the front of the book was better — it doesn’t have marked half the places that characters go or talk about in the book). As with Cleopatra’s Daughter, I also wish we saw more of the main figure’s story past early adulthood — we get a little more here than we get with Selene, but not by a wide margin. I’m starting to feel as though Moran has a bad habit of ending her stories too abruptly and too early.
Still, for a quick, fun historical read, it’s decent. I’m not an Egyptian scholar, so if there were glaring errors in accuracy, I didn’t notice them — Moran painted a nice picture of the minutiae of the world. I enjoyed the details of daily life in Egypt, particularly those within the women’s world and Mutny’s herblore. Moran seems to have an affinity for letting her heroines find ways to express themselves (and their intelligence) within the bounds of the historical patriarchies in which they live (Selene’s architecture, Mutny’s medicine, and the theme pops up in The Heretic Queen, the sequel to Nefertiti, as well), and if it may not be entirely accurate, I’m willing to overlook that. I enjoy the touch, because it feels as though, whether or not it’s true to the historical figures, it could be — the actions the women take aren’t so far outside the bounds of normalcy as to be unbelievable.
I couldn’t help, though, comparing this book in my head to the Lord Meren mysteries by Lynda Robinson, a series that I’ve loved for years. They present the Amarna controversy with a lot more nuance and sophistication than Moran does, even though I think they actually have less accuracy as far as bloodlines and relationships are concerned. This is Moran’s debut novel, though, and while it shows, it also demonstrates that she’s improving as she goes along. I need to put her latest, Madame Tussaud, on my to-read list. She’s rather in line with another favourite historical author of mine, the late Jean Plaidy — not always the “best” things around, but an enjoyable indulgence for a major historical geek like me.