Back in the seventies, the historical novel was still a bit of a rarity. They were usually massive, scholarly blockbusters that centered around prominent historical figures, or they were of the 'bodice-ripper' variety that tended to be a bit more flimsy on the facts but high on the emotional content. And every now and then, there would be an author that really stood out.
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For me, that was Pauline Gedge. Over the decades, I've tended to pounce on any new release, and eagerly gulping it down and returning for a reread. It's not just the setting of the stories -- Ancient Egypt -- that keep me enthralled, but also her characters, who tend to be well-rounded individuals, with complex personalities and motivations. And often when the stakes are the greatest empire of the ancient world, well, things can get interesting very quickly.
Child of the Morning tells the story of Hatshepsut, the daughter of Thothmes I, who managed to rule Egypt in her own name as Pharaoh, and not just that, but also keep the country out of war and prosperous. But when we first meet her, Hatshepsut is a young child, vibrant and smart, and into everything. Even in the schoolroom, she can easily outshine her half-brother, Thothmes, who is a bit of a dullard -- and sadly, knows it. Too, Hatshepsut is not the eldest of Pharaoh’s daughters, there is an older sister, Neferu-khebit, who is to marry the next king to legitimize his claim. But she has no desires to be Queen, seeing the role as a suffocating trap.
In the temple of Amun in Thebes, a young we'eb priest, the lowest of the low, overhears a dangerous conversation, and is too frightened to speak of it. Senmut, as the priest is called, is struggling to decide what to do when he finds a child swimming in the sacred pool of Amun. Fishing the girl out of the pool, he discovers that not only is she defiant of him, she is none other than Hatshepsut. So begins an entwined relationship that lasts their entire lives, but as they say, uneasy lies the crown. As Hatshepsut grows up, she looses her sister and her mother to death, but in her, her father sees the ambition and brains that Thothmes lacks, and in a stunning move, first names her as his heiress, and then as his regent, arranging for her to succeed him as Pharaoh, something unknown in Egypt.
And Hatshepsut, who is ambitious as well, is quite determined to rule alone, without any man, and especially Thothmes, at her side. There is Senmut, utterly devoted to her and very much in love with her, but too afraid of Hatshepsut's power to ever give it a voice. There are other men who are drawn into her circle, all of whom see a new Egypt under her rule. But when Thothmes I finally passes to the West, Hatshepsut discovers that the dream of having power is quite different than holding it in reality...
This is a terrific novel, full of plots and counterplots, where there is always the chance of misadventure or assassination. But this is also a novel full of the mystical as well, and Gedge handles it very well, from when Hatshepsut spends a night in the sanctuary of the God Amun, and discovers something vitally important about herself, or an encounter in a ruined temple with peasant children, or a war on the Nubian border, Gedge manages to create narrative that shines. Along with character development, it's one of her strongest traits, and one that I appreciate very much. Too, the language feels right, and she doesn't make it too over the top or flowery, but also avoids modern slang or concepts.
Some readers might be horrified to read that yes, the Egyptian royal family married each other to keep the bloodline pure, and that they did not see anything wrong with incest. This is another strength of Gedge's writing, where she is able to have the reader experience the thoughts of the Egyptian world without judging them and it makes sense, even though the action is repellent to most today.
While this was written well before the recent discoveries of what may be Hatshepsut's mummy and the mystery of her demise, it still works. The narrative is flowing and exciting, at times rushing along without a break and in others, languid and slow. But never is it boring, and it's an enchanting turn in ancient Egypt and one of history's most intriguing women.
This new edition has an introduction by author Michelle Moran, and returns the original Leo and Diane Dillon cover to the book, a lovely touch I thought.
Over the years I've reread this one several times, and it has remained a favourite of mine. I can happily recommend it, and other novels by the author, who remains one of the more skillful writers of historical fiction set in Egypt.
Five stars overall.
Child of the Morning
1977, 2010; Chicago Review Press
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