Whenever I hear of a new novel set in Ancient Egypt, or the latest issue of KMT arrives in my mailbox, I tend to get jumpy with anticipation. Whenever I get a chance to go through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I always pay a visit to the Egyptian galleries, where some of the finest artifacts from Egypt can be found. So it was a natural that I would be eagerly awaiting this recent novel to get into my greedy paws.
Nefertiti is the debut novel by newcomer Michelle Moran, and as can be guessed from the title, set in the waning years of Egypt's eighteenth dynasty. The narrator of this story is a lesser known historical figure, that of Mutnodjmet, the younger half-sister of Nefertiti. Mutnodjmet is the quiet one, taller and darker than her beautiful sister, who is already very self-aware at the age of fifteen. It is through mostly Mutnodjmet's eyes that the story of Amunhotep-Akhenaten and Nefertiti is told, with varying results.
Queen Tiye, Amunhotep III's wife, arrives at the home of her brother, Ay, on what appears to be a friendly family visit, but really to look over Nefertiti as a possible wife for the new heir to Egypt, her son, also named Amunhotep. Nefertiti, greedy, vain girl that she is, is thrilled to be going to Thebes and the royal court. Mutnodjmet is going to travel with her as her chief handmaiden and confidant, much to the younger girl's dismay. She would much rather have a quiet life in obscurity, tending to her herb garden.
And the problems start almost immediately -- for Amunhotep is already married to Kiya, a soft, gentle woman who just happens to be pregnant. Nefertiti, who thought she was going to take Thebes by storm turns into one of the more unpleasant characters in fiction that I've encountered. She's shrewish, scheming, and while she's certainly beautiful and talented, she's also a self-absorbed, self-centered brat. Amunhotep the younger isn't that interesting either -- he continually bellows and shouts throughout the story, showing little personality or cunning and merely there as a threat, and just as self-absorbed and shallow as Nefertiti.
We follow them through to Amunhotep's rise to Pharaoh, and his radical move of the capital to a barren wasteland in the desert, the new city of Amarna. There's also the creation of his cult of Aten, changing his name to Akhenaten, and Nefertiti's continual fretting and worrying about her inability to bear a son that would secure her position of power. In between depictions of feasts, beauty treatments, and childbirth scenes, we get little snippets of daily life -- games, chariot racing, the military, and other fun and games among the aristocracy.
As for Mutnodjmet, we get to see her at first dazzled, then disillusioned by her sister, at first submissive and meek, then finally developing a will of her own, especially when she meets a dashing general by the name of Nakhtmin. While watching her developing a backbone of her own is interesting, and her romance with Nakhtmin a fresh angle in this story, it's not enough to carry this story either.
And now for the bad news.
This is very much a first novel. Most of the action is in the form of dialogue between the various characters, with not a lot of introspection for getting to know any of these people better. Both Akhenaten and Nefertiti really suffer as a result, as it's nearly impossible to really feel any sympathy for them on their ruinous rise to power. So too do the characters of Kiya, Tiye, Ay, Horemheb and Nakhtmin. They are all very weak, and their motives aren't that interesting -- everyone is after power or gold.
Two points bugged me throughout the story. One is the liberal treatment that Moran gives to what is actually known about this period of Egyptian history -- she has Akhenaten a paranoid, grandious madman, eaten up with corrosive jealousy of his father and elder brother, and yet a sensitive poet. Huh? Somehow that didn't quite mesh right. Nefertiti is hardly a sophisticated woman in this one either, unwilling to learn from her mistakes, and somehow, that didn't feel right either. Other characters suffer as well, especially Horemheb, who plays a bit role in this drama, and instead is set up as a potential usurper and rival to Akhenaten, with the result that he is imprisoned or sent away throughout much of the story. Other known historical figures vanish completely -- among them are Sitamun and Beketaten, possible sisters to Akhenaten; Meryra, who was the actual high priest of Aten instead of Panahesi, and even Amunhotep III himself, who appears very briefly as a drunken wreck of a man.
The other point that bothered me to no end are the anachronisms that litter the story. Moran has bells tolling out the birth of little royal babies -- now, I don't know huge amounts of details about metallurgy in Egypt, but bells? She also gets squeamish about the incestuous marriages that Pharaoh would make with his sisters/daughters. Most of all, she uses the modern name for Akhenaten's city -- Amarna -- instead of the actual, known name of the place that was used -- Akhetaten, the City on the Horizon of the Aten. Other problems include having the Black Death sweeping through, the use of the Indian concept of the Durbar to explain Akhenaten's festival, and so forth. One of the more coy bits was having prayers end with Amun.
What really surprised me was that Moran skipped over one of the most intriguing artifacts from the period -- the mysterious wall images that show the royal couple mourning the death of a princess or queen, that show not just Mutnodjmet but also a possible infant Tutankhamun.
While not all of the readers are going to be expert Egyptologists, there's enough of them out there who are rabid Egyptophiles who have done their research. And for them (and I'm among them) this novel is a disappointment. I was left with the suspicion that Moran had read a few popular histories of the period, drew a lot of her ideas from Tyddesley's work on Nefertiti, looked a few picture books, and then crafted her story from that. It's shoddy, simplistic storytelling, and it shows.
Summing up, if you don't know a lot of this period of history, or you just want a story filled with glamour and royalty, this should suit. Say four stars. But if you are familiar with this period of history, this is going to be a very jarring novel to take in. While Moran certainly has talent as a storyteller, and this novel even hints at a possible sequel, the aftereffect is like drinking a stale cheap wine. Not very satisfying.
The best of the novels that tell the story of Akhenaten and Nefertiti is still Pauline Gedge's The Twelfth Transforming, which doesn't incorporate the latest news in Egyptology, manages to feel right in terms of the setting and action. And Moran's attempt is certainly better than the hack job of Nefertiti: the Book of the Dead that was published earlier this year.
For me, this was a three star read. Full of potential that falls apart at the end.
Books by Michelle Moran:
Nefertiti -- you are here
The Heretic Queen
Cleopatra's Daughter -- due sometime in 2009
2007; Crown Publishers, New York
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