Tag Archives: historical-egypt

The Lord Meren Mysteries, #1-3, by Lynda S. Robinson

MurderAnubisTitles: Murder at the Place of Anubis, Murder at the God’s Gate, Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
Author: Lynda S. Robinson
Years of Publication: 1994 / 1995 / 1997
Length: 224 / 288 / 258 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

MurderGodsGateI’ve decided to review the first trilogy of this series all together, since the books are sort of too short to treat with individually. (Not that you couldn’t. It would just make for very short posts, and I’m more likely to complete one long one than three short ones).

The Lord Meren mysteries are set in ancient Egypt, taking place during the reign of Tutankhamun. Each book has its own murders to solve, but they weave together into a larger political plot regarding the tensions of the time. These books posit Tutankhamun as the younger brother of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten (DNA tests in 2010 revealed him to be most probably Akhenaten’s son, but these books work from a different dynastic theory, popular and viable in the 1990s). MurderRejoicingAkhenaten had tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic society, going so far as to construct a new capital for his sun god; though the kingdom reverted after his death, old tensions between the two factions persist in Robinson’s version of Tut’s Egypt. Lord Meren is “the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh”, his chief investigator, who also bears the coveted title Friend of the King. Along with advisers Ay, Horemheb, and Maya, he works to keep peace between the court and the still-resentful priests of Amun, protecting the young king until he can grow into himself and govern Egypt with wisdom and strength. This is all, of course, very sad, since everyone knows that Tutankhamun dies at 19 — and if you know what happens between Ay and Horemheb afterwards, it’s even worse. That shadow hangs over the series, but not so heavily as to be a distraction.

Robinson does a great job of evoking her setting. She has clearly done her research when it comes to Egyptology — there are so many wonderful cultural nuances, everything from dressing rituals to furniture to food. It’s both alien and familiar, as is entirely appropriate for a world removed from ours by several thousand years. People are people, on the whole, motivated by more or less the same desires throughout history — but the dressings change. The morality is different. The etiquette is foreign. But Robinson brings the reader through it deftly. Only occasionally do her explanations get a little too heavy-handed, and she does have a habit of repeating herself. For the most part, however, she illustrates the world of the 18th Dynasty beautifully. She also handles the detective work nicely — an interesting feat without the benefits of modern science. A lot of what Meren does is simple deduction, or the sort of science that they had available to them (the Egyptians were, for example, experts on many poisons), but there’s also superstition and religion mixed up in it. For instance, when there’s a suspicious death, Meren brings in a priest to check for signs of magical interference. In this way, Robinson makes sure that the mystery-solving never feels anachronistic. Meren is a brilliant and capable man of his time, truly exceptional — but he remains a man of his time, not apart from it, which I appreciate.

All three books have snappy, quick-moving plots. In Place of Anubis, a man is killed in the sacred place of embalming, and his wife, sons, concubine, and coworkers all seem to have reason to have done it. In God’s Gate, one death, made to look like an accident, sets of a chain of murders pointing at a conspiracy among the priests. In Feast of Rejoicing, Meren’s cousin-by-marriage dies at his house, forcing him to examine his own relatives as potential suspects, all the while trying to protect his teenaged daughters from harm. Throughout all three, another mystery surfaces: the fate of Queen Nefertiti, assumed to have died of plague — but Meren comes to suspect it may not have been so simple a tragedy. He also has to work to keep the young king Tutankhamun sheltered, but without hobbling his growth as a ruler — and he has to help the king protect the mummified remains of Akhenaten, the very pharaoh who caused so many problems for Meren.

Lord Meren, his adopted son Kysen, and his daughter Bener (introduced only in the third book) are the best things about this series. They’re wonderful characters. Meren is haunted by the past, both by his own capitulation to the blasphemy of the Aten and to his role in Akhenaten’s death (a sin of omission more than anything else, but still a source of guilt for the honorable Meren). Akhenaten had Meren’s father killed, then imprisoned and tortured Meren into accepting his new god; during Akhenaten’s reign, Meren had to bear witness to all sorts of fits of madness, blasphemies, and desecrations, and he has never been able to forgive himself for being party to it. Akhenaten was also responsible for the murders of the wife and child of Meren’s cousin Ebana, a priest of Amun, causing lasting tension between them. Meren also has a jealous younger brother who was spoiled by their abusive father, a sly former friend and potential lover called Bentanta, a host of meddling relatives, and three daughters growing up too quickly for him to handle. Bener, the middle daughter, is fiendishly clever, with a tendency to buck proper gender roles in an attempt to help her father. Kysen was adopted by Meren as a child, plucked from his own abusive father, lifted from a commoner’s life to the glories of the court, and never quite comfortable there. He follows in Meren’s footsteps, learning the methods of detective work and interrogation, helping Meren to piece together the puzzles. Together, they make an intriguing and complex family.

I can happily recommend these books to fans of murder mysteries and historicals. I read them first when I was about 12, and I return to them every few years, just as light, easily digestible summer reads. They aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are well-rendered, engaging, and well worth spending a few hours with. I would also recommend them to anyone who enjoys the Pendergast novels (as many of my followers do). There are some similarities between Meren and our beloved Aloysius, and the tangled family dynamics twisting into the murders has a similar appeal.

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Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, by Tony Perrottet

Title: Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists
Author: Tony Perrottet
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 416 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history, travel
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is not the sort of book I typically read, but I’m so, so glad I took a chance on this one. It’s completely delightful — Perrottet has a wonderfully accessible tone, and he melds history and the present day together in a fascinating weave.

Tony Perrottet, a travel journalist and lifelong lover of the classics, decides to go on one last final adventure when his girlfriend falls unexpectedly pregnant. He had, previously, always avoided the Mediterrannean as overcrowded and overhyped — but then he hit on the idea to embrace the mania and follow the trail of the first generation of international tourists. The book opens with a magnificent description of the unveiling of Agrippa’s world map, an enormous marble creation which displayed, for the first time, the world as they knew it in all its glory. Europe, Asia, and Africa, from Britain to India, Germany to the cataracts of the Nile, all laid out in a public gallery for first century Romans to peruse at their leisure. Even more importantly, at least for purposes of tourism, it showed the roads and shipping lanes which connected the empire. Suddenly, everything seemed so close — and so off they took, in droves. Perrottet arranged his journey, pregnant girlfriend in tow, to mirror theirs: starting in Rome, then south to the Bay of Naples, the peninsula to Brundisium and thence to Greece, to chart all the sites of the once-great empire, then island-hopping across the Aegean, travel by land up the coast of Asia Minor to Troy, then down to Egypt for Alexandrian indulgence and a Nile cruise.

Throughout the book, Perrottet hops back and forth between the experience of the ancients and his own. He tells us what excited first-century Romans, where they partied and where they studied. In so many ways, you can see how little has changed: they have the same complaints about greedy hoteliers and foreign food, road conditions and overpriced souvenirs, they seek out the best wine and the finest dining, they carve their initials on monuments — all motions that tourists today still go through in their millions. The priorities of the ancients don’t always align with ours, and what the sites meant to them was different, thanks to religious and cultural drift, but still — the humanity of them shines through across two thousand years of history. More than anything, Perrottet brings that commonality across.

The section on Rome was particularly fun for me, because I’ve been almost everywhere he mentioned. I went to Italy with a school group when I was 16, and while I wish I’d been older, to better appreciate it all, it’s still vivid in my memory. The Forum Romanum, the Coliseum, the coast at Baiae, the isle of Capri, the sandy streets (and looming mafia presence) of Pompeii, the tightly-reined terror of Naples. I have my own torturous tale, of thinking I was in for a day of shopping and then finding myself having to trek three miles uphill to Tiberius’s villa at the absolute highest point on Capri. I know what those places look and sound and smell like, and so this section of the book was a wonderfully nostalgic trip for me. And yet, there was still new information for me, both from the historical and the modern perspective. Pagan Holiday provides some delightfully salacious details that high-school students don’t get told when visiting sites, particularly in regard to the carnal indulgences of Baiae. Perrottet also actually stayed in Naples, where as we were herded carefully in and out, and the characters inhabiting that degenerated city that he draws for the reader are unforgettable. By and large, though, we walked a lot of the same steps, and it made me miss Italy terribly.

The rest of Perrottet’s journey, though, was unfamiliar territory to me. Perrottet makes Greece sound both like a great experience and like a significant challenge. I imagine it’s a lot more of the latter now than it was ten years ago, when he wrote this book, and, thanks to the Greek economic instability, it’s likely to stay that way for a while longer. But still, Perrottet finds the ancients awakened for him across the country, from the erudition of Athens to the bizarre ways in which the Spartan military legacy has lived on in Mani, from the ghosts of athletes at Olympus to the wilderness of Arcadia.

Of all the places Perrottet discusses, he most put a fire in me to visit Ephesus and its environs in Turkey, which he describes as a better-preserved, more lively, and less aggressive version of what you’ll find in Greece. He also states that Turkey is better traveled by land than by sea, which is encouraging for this hydrophobe. I had no idea that Ephesus was nearly equivalent to Pompeii as an archaeological site:

Nowhere else is the ancient Roman world so vivid, the intervening centuries so transparent; nowhere in Greece or Italy makes it so shockingly clear that the past actually happened. You couldn’t just see the ancients enjoying their holiday pleasures; you could hear and smell them.

I want that memory in my life. And, like Perrottet, I would love the chance to visit the anticlimactic ruins of Troy. His description of how Troy was already a tourist trap in the first century is pretty fascinating, since, of course, Troy was already 1200 years in the past for them. The Romans had a passion for all things Trojan, thanks to their cultural myth of being descended from Aeneas and other heroes who escaped the Fall. Perrottet connects their obsession with their fallen heroes to a story from World War II: not far from the site of Troy was where the battle of Gallipolli took place, a disastrous endeavour with heavy losses on both sides. In one of the book’s more poignant sections, Perrottet visits this site, finding on its memorial the name of an uncle of his who died there. He walks this recent battlefield, to which he has a personal connection, with Homer’s words ringing in his head.

I think my patience, much like Perrottet’s girlfriend’s, would have worn out somewhere in Egypt (even without the pregnancy factoring in). Of everywhere the author described, the process of traveling seemed least pleasant there — even worse than the terrible weather in Asia Minor and the desperately frenetic attitude of Greece — and I can only imagine it’s gotten worse in the intervening decade, given the current political circumstances in Egypt. I know they’re trying to lure tourists back in with assurances of safety and luxury, but frankly, I’m not buying it.

Part of it comes from having heard horror stories from a friend whose tour guide literally abandoned her group in the desert. That seems, from Perrottet’s descriptions, to be in-line with what tourists can expect throughout the country. I also was astonished to learn that, even a decade before the Arab Spring, terrorist attacks were so common in Middle Egypt that they shut down cruises on the Nile and that trains routinely expected to be shot at on the way to Luxor. I am curious, though, about how the Alexandrian scuba-recovery project is going, if any progress has been made on that front in ten years. And still, no matter the current climate, there is something tremendously compelling about the oldest extant places in the Western World. I remember, on a much smaller scale, visiting the Etruscan burial mounds in Italy, three thousand years old, and being completely bowled over by the age of them. To stand in the middle of something so profoundly ancient is an astonishment to the senses, almost incomprehensible. Egypt is another couple thousand years removed from the present than the Etruscan complexes are. Seeing those sites must be absolutely tremendous.

Perhaps the best part of the Egypt section is the tale of Perrottet’s very own personal mummy’s curse. After he literally pokes the mummy of Pharaoh Thutmose III — under invitation, by the way, of the curator — a series of disasters provokes a side-quest, to appease the ancient ruler’s spirit. I really enjoyed the way Perrottet wove this story in; it doesn’t overwhelm the narration, but the thread is there, and it mixes an appropriately ancient air of superstition in with the all-too-cynical mundanity of modern travel concerns.

I should very much like to read more travelogues of this kind in general and from Perrottet in particular. I appreciate how much detail Perrottet put in and how devoted he was to making sure his research was solid. I liked that he told us where his stories came from (and I now really want to find the account of Germanicus’s grand tour, that ended in his untimely death). And yet he never loses sight of his own stories, his own experience, and his own take on things. His insights are wonderful, personable, and often quite touching, yet always with a wry sense of humour attached as well. At the end of his trip, cruising down the Nile and suffering from archaeological oversaturation, he reflects:

…we decided to skip a few land visits. All we wanted to do was wallow in the pool and stare at the riverbank. I felt a little ashamed of this philistine behavior, until I read that Julius Caesar and Cleopatra had enjoyed the same sort of trip. Caesar was exhausted after years of battle. Cleopatra was heavily pregnant with his son. Of course, Julius had just conquered the entire known world. But apart from that minor detail, the parallel seemed fairly apt.

I recommend this book to any travel junkies or classical enthusiasts — there’s plenty here for both sets, and if you exist in the overlapping portion of that diagram, you’ll be in literary heaven. If I ever have the money (and the regions are ever completely safe to travel in again), I would love to re-create this same journey. It sounds like a blast.

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Timeless, by Gail Carriger

Title: Timeless (Parasol Protectorate #5)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 386 pages
Genre: steampunk adventure
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: For the series as a whole, Changeless-forward, really

I said in my review of Heartless that the Parasol Protectorate series just keeps getting better, and Timeless did not disappoint me. I think it’s the best of the series. All of the characters are handled well, Carriger’s descriptions are both vivid and precise, and her dialogue, as always, sparkles with wit and humour. Like the rest of the series, this is steampunk with a fine froth and a sense of humour. Timeless also continues the exploration of the political ramifications of the collision of the paranormal and the scientific, delving far back into he AU’s history as well as setting the stage for its future.

Timeless jumps two years forward from Heartless, two years that have been peaceful — well, as peaceful as anything is likely to get in the Maccon household, especially considering they live in a vampire’s closet so that said vampire can serve as adoptive father to two-year-old Prudence, who happens to be a metanatural. Born from her supernatural werewolf father and preternatural Alexia, Prudence possesses the capability to absorb a supernatural’s aspect — leaving said supernatural mortal until such time as Alexia can use her preternatural abilities to cancel everything out. It certainly makes life interesting — not least for their neighbours — but all in all, things seem to be sorting themselves out.

And then Alexia gets, by way of the local vampire queen, a summons to appear with her daughter in Alexandria (yes, the one in Egypt) before Matakara, the oldest vampire living. At the same time, Sidhaeg — Conall’s multi-great-granddaughter and Alpha of his old Scottish pack — shows up, looking for her missing Beta, who had been in Egypt on a mission for her. The Beta reappears, but gets murdered before he can get more than a few words out to Alexia. So Alexia packs up her family — and the Tunstells and their acting troupe — and heads out via steamer (werewolves being notoriously poor floaters). From there, the story whirls through a sequence of mishaps, supernatural political entanglements, and strange occurrences. The action clips along at a great pace, both in Alexandria and back at home, as the Maccons abroad and the wolf pack back at home both try to sort out the mystery of the God-Breaker Plague.

The really great thing here, which started to become prominent in Blameless and Heartless, is Carriger’s ability to not forget character development admist all the action. For a lot of the book, that really shines in Biffy and Lyall, though we do get a fair bit out of Alexia and Conall as well. Biffy’s swiftly becoming my favourite character in the whole series, really, because he goes through such a transformative journey from when we meet him to the end of this book. Without giving too much away, Carriger handles the various aspects of his personality and relationship dynamics really well, with a lot of tenderness and a lot of psychological awareness. She handles the expanding cast of characters without sacrificing any emotional realism, and she jumps back and forth between the two plotlines in a way that makes sure the reader never loses sight of what’s going on.

Carriger also does a nice job weaving multicultural elements into the story. I particularly like the “Drifters”, balloon-living nomads of the North African desert. We don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with them, but you get a sense of real cultural texture nonetheless. I love the idea of this herd of balloons, linked together by nets that the women and children use for social interaction. Her descriptions of steampunk Alexandria and Upper Egypt are a great blend of imaginative and clearly well-researched, and the cast of extras that the Maccon/Tunstell party meets there adds even more colour and excitement to the series.

I also commend Carriger for her ability to portray a toddler character — a notoriously difficult challenge in writing, and one that many authors seem to avoid at all costs. I’m convinced the difficulties in writing such young characters is the reason most happy-ever-afters end at the altar, or at least with the birth. But Carriger strikes it perfectly with Prudence. She has the right size vocabulary to reflect the state where vocalisation hasn’t quite caught up to cognitive reasoning; Prudence understands more than she can express, and this does seem to frustrate her at times. She also manages to make Prudence charming without being saccharine, another admirable feat; Prudence demonstrates the right balance of adorability, manic impulse, and short attention span for a two-year-old. She’s also part of the story without overwhelming it, which I appreciate; too often when series do incorporate kids, it becomes all about them. Alexia’s attitude goes a long way towards keeping this from becoming a trite or obnoxious trope.

I’ve said throughout the series that Carriger is at her best when she’s writing for herself, with her own style, rather than emulating other genres, and in Timeless, she seems to have trusted that impulse entirely. There are no moments of narrative awkwardness, where the story feels like something else has collided into it from the outside; rather, we are treated to the continuing adventures of Alexia et al in Carriger’s own witty voice. It’s a delight. My only criticism is that the denouement ties up a little too quickly. I could’ve used a bit more exploration of the new constructs our characters find themselves in at the end of the series, about how they’re going to move forward from here on out. Ultimately, it just ended way too soon; I could have happily spent a lot more time with these characters.

Timeless is an adventure story that manages to be lighthearted and emotionally tugging at the same time. Carriger gives us characters we can care about, but without ever taking herself too seriously. The series as a whole has fantastic energy, superb wit, and a sparkle that I’ve yet to find in other steampunk literature. The Parasol Protectorate series is just plain fun. I’m tremendously sorry to say goodbye to this series, but I’m delighted that Carriger’s world will be continuing in the YA Finishing School Series and the adult Parasol Protectorate Abroad series. The former will take place some twenty-five years earlier in the AU’s history; the latter is due to feature our Prudence, all grown up and taking on the world. Both are due out in 2013, and I eagerly anticipate their arrival.


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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 400 pages
Genre: biography
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a very strong biography, and Schiff does an admirable job rescuing Cleopatra’s reputation from the vagaries of history. Her story as the world commonly knows it is one of erasure and revision. The men who wrote her earliest biographies were not only men but her enemies, Romans eager to blame her for the downfall of the Republic.

Unfortunately, just due to the fragmented nature of the historical record, that means Schiff does spend a lot of time defining her subject in the negative — talking about Cleopatra by talking about who and what Cleopatra wasn’t. And that does become tedious in places. I can’t blame Schiff for this — it’s the nature of the beast, and as someone who spends most of her life with her head in the 16th century, I know how many frustrations there are when it comes to trying to circle in on what the truth might’ve been. It does, however, make for a bit of roundabout reading. She also has to spend a lot of time on Caesar and Antony’s lives, despite her frequent assertions that Cleopatra wasn’t defined solely by her relationships with them. I don’t know that there’s a way around that — her readers need to know the political entanglements of the time, and those entanglements were largely engineered by those specific men — but it is a bit of an odd juxtaposition with her intended goal.

I like the book best when it’s extrapolating Cleopatra’s probable life based on what we do know about the culture of the time, about Alexandria, about other leaders of her ilk. Those are the passages that come most to life and which show Cleopatra nearer to who she probably was: a clever, resourceful woman holding onto her survival — and that of her country — with both hands. Schiff spends considerable time on Cleopatra’s likely education, on the social culture of Alexandria, and on the conflicts between the native Egyptians and the Greek immigrants. That structure created a fascinating dichotomy both within Alexandria and between Alexandria and the rest of Greece; I enjoyed learning more about how Cleopatra, grateful to the native Egyptians from her period of exile, worked further towards ingratiating herself towards them and towards improving their lives than had previous Ptolemies. She learned their language, adopted their religion, took part in their rituals, all to a far greater degree than anyone else in her dynasty had. It made her unpopular with the Alexandrians — a new level of political turmoil to add to the swirling charybdis Cleopatra had to negotiate — but it gave her a lot of support in other ways and from other quadrants.

Another fascinating political narrative is that of the East. So often, Rome in this period overshadows the history of what was going on elsewhere, which is a shame, because the machinations of Parthians, Armenians, Anatolians, Judaeans, Nabataeans, and other peoples of Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean are well-worth consideration. Cleopatra’s ongoing feud with Herod — as well as the complex and murderous dynamics of his family, to which Schiff devotes some time — is a narrative all in itself, and one which directly refutes claims that Cleopatra seduced every man who dropped into her path.

I also like this book because of the ways in which it remains so relevant. The shaming of women’s sexuality, the body-policing, the castigation of an independent woman, the naked fear of a woman in power — these things still resonate so clearly. The vitriolic criticisms of Cicero would not be out of place in conservative mouths today. As Schiff deftly notes:

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her threateningly attractive than fatally intelligent.

This is still true. So much about modern culture imbues women with the idea that they are only worth as much as their body, that their sexuality and ability to bear children defines them — the source of all virtue and all vice, depending on how it’s used. And, of course, men get to decide whether you’ve used it properly or not, now as then; modern women are subject to the same binary judgment as Cleopatra was, cast as the vile, ambitious seductress opposite proper, devoted, modest Octavia. In that way, this book is importantly feminist; we need more of this version of history in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism about this book being dry and boring — and, well, it is a non-fictionalized history. There’s a lot of difference between this book and, say, Hand of Isis, Lily of the Nile, or even the particularly dense Masters of Rome series. But one should not be judged by the other’s standards. Cleopatra: A Life is a bit dry in some places, perhaps, but definitely not boring. It is a comprehensive and engaging biography which clears away the accumulated detritus of centuries’ worth of defamation. Well worth the read.

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Lily of the Nile, by Stephanie Dray

Title: Lily of the Nile
Author: Stephanie Dray
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 351 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.25 stars

It’s difficult to read this book and not draw comparisons to Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter, which I reviewed back in March. Not only do they cover the same subject matter, they do so for almost exactly the same timeframe — from the death of the famous Cleopatra to just before her daughter’s wedding. Cleopatra Selene is taken to Rome, paraded in Augustus’s triumph, and forcibly adopted into the imperial family. She has to deal with adjusting to her new life and status, with her rebelliously inclined brother, with political threats and personal trials, and with the dubious legacy left to her by her parents. The story has the same basic shape in both books.

Dray definitely gives the story a new angle, though; she positions the life of Cleopatra Selene in relationship to the Cult of Isis. For most of the book, this is fascinating. It gives Selene a wonderful sense of mystery, something that marks her out from her surroundings and from the Roman attitudes she’s pressured to adopt, and I like that it’s a little bit brutal. Isis’s messages to Selene appear as bloody hieroglyphs, literally carved into Selene’s skin in moments of emotional distress. Faith isn’t easy or painless, and that’s definitely part of the message behind what Selene has to learn. The connection also has political implications, as Augustus accuses the Isiacs of plotting sedition against him, intending to make Selene and her less-compliant twin Helios the figureheads of a new rebellion. Selene learns how to plot and how to negotiate, striking deals with the loathed emperor in order to keep her people safe, even if it means personal sacrifice. The magic in the book is tangibly real, in a very religious way, and treated as such, which keeps the book from wandering into fantasy territory, and it definitely adds a new and exciting element to the story.

On the other hand, there are times when it definitely wanders into preachy territory. When Selene starts educating anyone else about the Isiac cult and sacred femininity, it sort of grinds the story to a halt, because the reader is then, too, getting lectured. It feels, at times, a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, only not quite as deftly handled (and MoA is itself far from flawless in that regard). Probably it makes me a bad pagan, but I have trouble enjoying those explications, especially when they stick out so awkwardly from the rest of the story.

Lily of the Nile is an inventive tale, and Dray fills out the gaps in Selene’s story admirably, expanding her life past the scraps that history hands down to us. She also makes some different choices regarding interpreting the historical record. The twins’ younger brother, Philadelphus, lives long past when most historians seem to think he probably died. One of Antony’s other sons, Iullus, gets a bit of stage time, and Antyllus gets a mention. Julia starts her love affairs early, and Octavia and Agrippa suffer unfulfilled passion for each other (and I have to wonder if HBO’s Rome inspired that bit of invention). I’m glad that Dray felt the freedom to play around with some of the historical question marks and ellipses. And yet, there was something that didn’t quite grab me as strongly as I’d hoped it would. I think it was that so many characters felt glanced at, rather than fully fleshed out. The imperial household had so many great personalities in it, but quite a few of them get rather short shrift, hardly mentioned at all, or downgraded to pretty two-dimensional characters. This is often a trouble in first person narratives, and it’s why I’ll take a good strong shifting-third any day of the week — but that’s down to personal preference. Since we only see what Selene sees and know what she knows, there’s a lot left missing from the rest of the story.

On that note, I have to make a confession of bias. Since I read the first few books Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (and would finish it if the last three would just come back into print), I sort of judge all books of ancient Rome by that standard — which is unfortunate, because next to that, most others tend to fall short of the mark. McCullough is not, I freely admit, to everyone’s taste, but she is to mine. I love a good panoptic — dozens of characters fleshed out, the history so vivid and vital you can feel it come to life around you, richly embroidered down to the last detail. Lily of the Nile, as with Moran’s books, is definitely lighter fare.

I did enjoy the read, despite some mixed feelings, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, which will actually follow Selene through her adult life as Queen of Mauretania. I’ve felt cheated out of that before, so it’s nice to know we’ll be getting the rest of the story from Dray.

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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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Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran

Title: NefertitiNefertiti by Michelle Moran
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.

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Cleopatra’s Daughter, by Michelle Moran

Title: Cleopatra’s DaughterCleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran
Author: Michelle Moran
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 464 page
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New!
Rating: 4.5 for personal enjoyment, 3.5 for technical merit, averaging out to a 4.

Really lovely — my only real complaint is that it ended too soon! I wanted to read more of Selene’s life as an adult, but that’s largely because I find this whole era so fascinating. I love the collapse of the Roman Republic and the start of the Empire. This book fits in nicely between Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series and I, Claudius, in a way — not that there’s strict continuity between them all, and Cleopatra’s Daughter is definitely lighter fair than McCullough or Graves, but this fits into the gap of years between the two and looks at some characters who get skipped over or glossed in other works.

All of the characters are quite well-drawn. Selene’s reaction to the different expectations of a woman in Rome as opposed to her mother’s Egypt is a great way of getting to her personality — and I love that she finds a way out of the bind. She feels very authentic in her reactions, caught in such a tangle, occasionally taking rebellious risks, but generally finding it easier to acquiesce — and then feeling guilt over her capitulation. Her relationship with Julia is one of the best and most fascinating in the book. They could so easily become bitter rivals, especially over Marcellus, but instead they develop a much more complex dynamic. Julia is spoiled but charming, a little oblivious to Selene’s feelings at times but still a compassionate friend when Selene does need her. It’s also nice how their relationship is sort of the bright mirror to the vicious rivalry between Octavia and Livia — both of whom are intriguing characters in their own right. I’ve always wondered how Octavia must have felt, tasked with caring for her husband’s children by the woman he left her for, and Cleopatra’s Daughter answers that question admirably. My only complaint, again, is that I wanted more — Moran gives you such a strong sense of this deliciously bitter rivalry, but I kept wanting to see more of it, learn more about it, see where it would go. As for Octavian, the man who will be Augustus Caesar, he’s every bit the cold, ruthless pragmatist, sweeping inconvenience out of his path to glory — even when those inconveniences are people, children, relatives… no mercy, no regrets.

There are a few historical glitches, but overall, the picture that Moran paints of late-Republic/early-Imperial Rome is rich, detailed, and a wonderful immersion. The political history is thorough without being overwhelming, and the plot clips along at a decent pace, not dragging. As I said, I would’ve liked a little bit more scope, to see a bit more of Selene’s life — the book ends rather abruptly, tying everything up in one great sweep, and then leaving it to an afterword to tell us what happens to all of the historical figures in the rest of their lives. Admittedly, a lot of that is ground that has been covered elsewhere — not that that necessarily stops authors of historical fiction — but I would’ve enjoyed seeing a more complete view of these characters. As it is, the book drops off when most of them are about fifteen years old — so I did feel a bit cheated at the end.

Overall, though, I can recommend this book as thoroughly enjoyable light historical fiction. This is one where I think my personal enjoyment outstripped the technical merit (thus the split rating) — but I think it’s perfectly possible to subjectively enjoy something beyond what it’s “worth” objectively. It’s definitely a quick read, not as dense as Masters of Rome, but I don’t think less of it for that. Not every book needs to be epic or panoptic (much though I do love books of that type). Cleopatra’s Daughter might be a good introduction to this era of historical fiction for someone not quiet yet ready to leap into heavier works, and it’s also a good bit of brain candy for readers who are already familiar with Roman history and culture, and who enjoy the interpretations thereof in fiction.


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