The Heretic Queen, by Michelle Moran

Title: The Heretic QueenThe Heretic Queen, Michelle Moran
Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 383 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

Our heroine Nefertari is, in Moran’s book, the daughter of Mutny and the niece of Nefertiti, forever tainted by her family’s legacy of tearing apart Egypt and nearly leading the realm to ruin. (The historical Nefertari’s descent is unknown; Moran takes some liberties, but they make as much sense as other theories I’ve seen). As an unpopular princess, her place in court is uncertain until Woserit, one of the aunts of young prince (soon-to-be Pharaoh) Ramesses, takes Nefertari under her wing, teaching her how to be both an appropriately-behaving princess and an alluring, desireable woman. Woserit and Nefertari both want Ramesses to marry Nefertari and choose her for Chief Wife, over the foolish, superstitious, histrionic Iset — Woserit for more political and practical reasons, Nefertari because she’s been in love with the prince for years. Ramesses marries her, but the battle for supremacy continues for years, as Nefertari combats the common people’s hatred for her (stemming from her family history, hence, the title of the book) and helps Ramesses through a series of political and military challenges.

I tore through this one, really — I had to force myself to put it down last night so I could go to bed at a reasonable hour. Nefertari is more of an active protagonist than Mutny was; she takes more of a role in her own life — once she decides to, at least. It takes a little while for her to decide to be proactive and assert herself, but once she does, the head of steam builds up pretty fast. I love that she used real, valuable assets, such as her skill with languages, to make herself a valuable wife to Ramsses. Watching her triumph over Iset in the petition hall was wonderfully satisfying, and I sort of wish we’d seen more of the politics on that end. The character I found truly fascinating, though, was Woserit. The High Priestess of Hathor had a great, complicated role in the story with a rich background, and I thought she was pretty much the coolest thing happening on the page. I feel like her relationship with her sister had a lot of resemblances to Octavia’s relationship with Livia in Cleopatra’s Daughter, only here you get to see more of it out in the open, and I love to watch that sort of rivalry in action.

The Heretic Queen also took an interesting approach to the biblical exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, without any sweeping dramatics or divine interventions. Ahmoses speaks for his people, monotheists in a realm where monotheism has come to have, after Akhenaten, dangerous connotations. Moran examines some complications — the Habiru are unpopular in Egypt due to their beliefs, but they also make up a sixth of the Egyptian army, and so Ramesses and Nefertari must decide if they can be allowed to leave Egypt, or if they should be forcibly expelled. It’s a more complex and nuanced version of the story than other fictional portrayals, and far more grounded as well.

I liked this one better than Nefertiti, and it has fewer of the flaws I mentioned in my review of that book, but the problem I’m still having with this author is… I wish there was more to each story! She ends the books so early in their lives, with the girls still so young. I wish we’d seen more of Nefertari on both ends, actually — I’d have liked more of her life at the Temple of Hathor, and I’d have liked to have seen more of her as a successive queen. Her entire life with Ramesses was apparently fascinating, we learn in an endnote — so I wish Moran had showed it to us, had given us more of Nefertari’s success and eventual deification during her lifetime. This book could’ve been twice as long, and I’d’ve been cheerful about it. Moran ends her books so abruptly — there’s a lot of build-up, a lot of struggle, a lot of emotional investment, and then not nearly enough time to celebrate Nefertari’s triumph. I could use more denouement out of all of her novels.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it to lovers of historical fiction. It’s definitely a light read, not an epic, but it’s thoroughly entertaining. And, for what it’s worth, though this book follows Nefertiti, it stands on its own, so you could definitely read one without having read the other.

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