I waffled quite a bit on how to rate this book and finally settled on an even three stars.
Nefertiti is an enjoyable book, accessible and readable with...moreI waffled quite a bit on how to rate this book and finally settled on an even three stars.
Nefertiti is an enjoyable book, accessible and readable with a cast of characters that feel familiar and therefore comfortable. Nefertiti is a volatile, haughty young woman who starts out willing to serve her politically potent family's ends, but quickly gets ideas of her own, and runs away with the reins of Egypt in her hands. Her sister Mutnodjmet is placid and eager to please, and quickly allows herself to become her father's tool in an attempt to pull Nefertiti back into the family's control. Akhenaten is unpredictable and strange, and this is probably my favorite fictional portrayal of one of Egypt's most stand-out kings.
I especially liked the scenes between Nefertiti and Kiya. There was enjoyable tension between the two wives, and they went to entertaining lengths to outdo each other. The scenes featuring both women were the most vivid for me -- and though it's been a few years since I read this novel, I still recall the moments where Kiya subtly taunts Nefertiti, and the scene where Nefertiti double-pierces her ears in an attempt to outdo her rival!
While I read through the book quickly and eagerly enough (always a good sign), I did find myself unable to love it as much as I wanted to.
The writing style was a bit more simplistic and pat than I prefer, feeling more like a narrative voice appropriate to YA or even MG fiction. (Some months after reading this book, I did find out that it had a dual promotional campaign to reach both YA and adult readers, so perhaps this was apropos.)
The characters changed very little, which is not necessarily a flaw, but again, not what I prefer in my reading experience. I often found the characters to be so familiar that I could predict their actions before they happened, and this always leaves me with a slight sense of disappointment. (I subscribe more to the George Martin school of thought, where characters continually surprise -- and die -- at unpredictable moments.)
As an Egyptian history nut and an author of Egyptian fiction myself, I was disappointed with certain historical details. The characters were depicted using a form of currency that did not exist during the Amarna period, and it felt like quite a stretch the way the author attempted to link the development of certain modern words (I won't say which ones, because I want to keep this review spoiler-free!) with an Egyptian etymology. I felt many times as I read Nefertiti that the research could have been tighter.
Finally, I found certain details of the plot to skirt rather close to Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. I am by no means saying I think Ms. Moran copied Gregory's book, but Nefertiti did feel strongly inspired by it, so that I was left at the end with the impression that I'd read this same story before. I would have hoped for a newer twist on the "ambitious young woman inspires her slightly crazy royal husband to commit grievous political blunders and almost ruins their country in the process" line. But of course, when one's building fiction off of real history, one has only so many plausible options.
All things considered, Nefertiti is a worthy read, a good book for a vacation, and has some memorable scenes. (less)
You can't approach this book as historical fiction. It may focus on the last part of Cleopatra IV's life, but it is too dissimilar in tone and deliver...moreYou can't approach this book as historical fiction. It may focus on the last part of Cleopatra IV's life, but it is too dissimilar in tone and delivery to historical fiction. This is not a genre work; it is pure literary fiction, and it's about as literary as it gets.
Told through the translating pen of a scribe who is interpreting the works of a man who took down dictation for an aging/dying Cleopatra (if memory serves me), the book itself was originally written in Mexican Spanish and translated into English for the American market. This leads to a sensory tangle of words (intentional and unintentional) that may overwhelm some readers. But those who love to read literary works in order to be carried away by a river of images will love it.
The essence of the plot, sparse though it is, is a recounting of Cleopatra's memories as she looks back on her life with some pain and regret. But the strength of the book -- and its actual point, I believe -- is its brilliant, powerful writing, filtered through all these fictional and actual translators until it becomes a study in the potency of pure emotion. It leaves you not with the experience of having lived an adventuresome life, as a straight historical novel might, but rather with the feeling that you have felt all the urgency, desperation, and futility of a once-powerful, now-fallen leader as she contemplates the end, and what that end means.
It's a powerful book, and it's not for everybody.(less)
Given that she was such an intriguing and impressive historical figure, there is a very sad dearth of...moreI'm wavering between a 3 and a 3.5 on this book.
Given that she was such an intriguing and impressive historical figure, there is a very sad dearth of fiction about Hatshepsut. There are perhaps three or four traditionally published novels -- this being one of them -- and a small handful of independent novels (self-published and small press), most of which are just bad.
Compare that with Cleopatra, who was, in my opinion, roughly equal in fascinating-ness, but who's got dozens of traditionally published novels devoted to her, as well as several wonderful biographies.
What gives? Is it just because Cleopatra's story was made into a movie that featured Elizabeth Taylor lounging around on a barge, purring? Seems unfair. If Hatshepsut hadn't paved the way for her, Cleopatra likely never could have ruled Egypt as Pharaoh -- especially not during the misogynistic Greek period.
For those who are unfamiliar with King Hatshepsut, she was the first woman in recorded Egyptian history to rule the country as full-on Pharaoh, not as a queen or as a regent. She co-ruled with her stepson, and several years after her death a nasty campaign spread throughout Egypt to erase her image and name from monuments -- the symbolic equivalent of killing her in the afterlife.
Yikes! What did she do to piss off the State so badly that somebody with power felt he had to kill her soul? For many decades Egyptologists thought that her co-regent stepson, Thutmose III, must have been pissed that he'd shared the throne with his stepmom for so many years (22 by most counts), and he finally got sick of it and murdered her, then went on an afterlife-slaying rampage with a chisel and a pick.
However, more recent discoveries seem to indicate that Hatshepsut and Thutmose III got along famously, that their co-reign was peaceful and equitable, that Hatshepsut took care of things at home while her studmuffin stepson led armies all over the place to expand Egypt's borders. Certainly it is now known that Hatshepsut was not murdered, but died at the relatively advanced age of 55-ish from an abscessed tooth (and she also had bone cancer which would have gotten her sooner or later.)
Even though we now know more about Hatshepsut's history, what we didn't know just ten years before left plenty of room for an interesting-as-hell novel. Possible usurpation of a baby's claim to the throne? Pissed stepson/co-regent? Maybe a murder, and then an afterlife-murder? Crap, that's awesome!
But virtually none of the novels about Hatshepsut delve into the mysteries and intrigues that surrounded her reign. They focus heavily instead of Hatshepsut's possible/probable romance with the commoner Senenmut, and that's all fine and dandy, since that's also an interesting aspect of this woman's history -- but the Hatshepsut novels out there leave me wanting more.
Judith Tarr's treatment of Hatshepsut's tale falls a touch short of the mark because it never delves very deeply into Hatshepsut's personality. She comes across to the reader as too aloof and mysterious, and we're never able to sympathize with her enough to really understand why she makes the choices she makes. With a personality as potentially complex and strange as Hatshepsut's must have been, why not explore it more fully?
The pacing was occasionally dragging, making this a long-haul book that took me several months to finish.
However, I still consider it a good read because the setting is explored remarkably well, giving the reader a real sense of immersion in 18th-Dynasty Egyptian culture. King And Goddess is perhaps one of the best Egyptian novels out there for feeling a real sense of time and place.
It is an enjoyable read, and perhaps to people who are not such nerd-os for Hatshepsut it's a much more satisfying experience. However, be aware that if you are a Hatshepsut fan, you may feel vaguely dissatisfied with certain aspects of this novel.(less)
There's just no way to write an honest and thorough review of this book without a heap of spoilers, so look away now if you want to avoid them.
My rati...moreThere's just no way to write an honest and thorough review of this book without a heap of spoilers, so look away now if you want to avoid them.
My rating of this book really surprised me.
Up until halfway through I felt sure this would be a four-star book. Instead, it ended up a weak three stars, leaning heavily toward 2. It's a vivid historical novel with exactly the right amount of detail, and the prose is quality. For the first half, the characters are complex and believable. Then we get to Egypt and it all falls apart.
I know what you're thinking. "Oh, Lavender is pissed over bad research in another Egyptian historical. YAWN." Not this time! This time, although anachronisms abounded in Halter's depiction of Egypt, they didn't bother me much (partly because not even an entire chapter was spent in Egypt.) This time it was entirely on the main character.
Sarai started the book strong: a plucky young woman who the reader can root for, but believably restrained by her culture. (No fiery princesses running off in defiance of cultural laws here...) Her adolescent romance with Abram is sweet; the reader wants to see this love come to fruition, even though everybody already knows how the Abraham/Sarah story goes. Sarai wins her man (after a lot of hardship and adventure) and goes off to Canaan with him. All the while, though she is a character with flaws, the reader still understands her motivations, still feels some affection for her. She's loving and devoted to Abram, even though she doesn't believe in his invisible God (not many in this book do.) She's courageous and determined. She faces down difficulties with good grace; she helps others, she judges wisely, she is a fair and giving person.
Then that pesky drought happens and it all goes to hell as Abram's tribe heads into Egypt. Good-bye to character consistency; Sarai becomes a completely different, wholly unrecognizable character at the flip of a page, with absolutely no explanation for her about-face in personality.
One moment she is full of understanding as to why Abram must lie and call her his sister (to save the life of his entire tribe.) The next, literally a paragraph later, she's pissed at Abram for "insulting" her in this way, and doesn't give up her grudge for YEARS. She has a rockin' night with Pharaoh, having better sex with him than she's had with Abram (which is really saying something), and continues to feel at the least extreme affection for Pharaoh, if not outright love, all the way until the end of her life. And yet she remains scorchingly angry with Abram, to the point that she in effect moves out and lives on her own for two years, over that whole "sister" thing. What?? If there was a greater complexity to her feelings than "He called me his sister! What a dick!" it's never explored in the book. It could have been. She could have felt torn over her passion for the Pharaoh and her shame at being, in essence, an adulterer, even though everybody knew what was going to go down at Pharaoh's palace, even Abram, because come on. But there is no exploration of her complex feelings. There is only sulking and pouting over what an insult Abram lobbed at her by calling her his sister, which she agreed ahead of time must happen in order to save the lives of every person she knew and loved.
It made no sense.
Also nonsensical was her unexplained hatred for Eleazar. Sarai just can't stand the kid from day one. No reason is ever given; in fact, Eleazar appears to be an admirable boy. Sarai hates him just because the plot calls for it...and really, the plot never called for it. The big payoff of the "Eleazar is a sleazeball!" sub-plot was that Eleazar wanted to inherit Abram's tribe, and was disappointed when Abram didn't die in war and he didn't get to inherit. That's it. He doesn't try to off Isaac or Abram, he doesn't do anything remotely evil. Sarai hates him for basically his entire life, without any reason whatsoever, and then the guy is like, "Crap. I was hoping to inherit a fortune. Oh well." And then he leaves.
Speaking of sleazeballs and character inconsistency, Lot was the one who deserved Sarai's mistrust and even hatred. After all, he attempts to rape her because she is so intensely, irresistibly beautiful that even Lot, whom Sarai raised like her own son, wants to do the deed with her. That is some Oedipal b.s. right there, my friends, but Sarai never seems more than mildly disconcerted by the whole "My adopted son just tried to rape me" thing; she goes on advocating for Lot long past the time when she should have sent his rapey butt off into the wilderness so she could finally get some peace. Lot is a drunkard, violent, unpredictable, spiteful, resentful, and...well...a would-be mom-raper. But he's the bee's knees, and Eleazar is the one who we're all supposed to dislike...?
Sarai's treatment of Hagar is outright disturbing. Sarai and Hagar form a very close friendship and are one another's only company during the years when Sarai is off pouting in her tent over the fact that Abram gave her his blessing to have a hot affair with the Pharaoh. Sarai is "full of love" for Hagar when she offers up her handmaid to bear Abram's son. She then takes it upon herself to treat Hagar like a queen for months during her pregnancy, but kicks her out of the tribe in a fit of rage because Hagar complains over some under-cooked meat. Wow. If she's going to be jealous of Hagar, great. Let her be. Instead, she loves Hagar, and then all of a sudden she hates her like crazy, enough to throw this woman out, seven months pregnant, into the wilderness, ostensibly to die with the only biological child of her beloved husband inside her...the very child she ordered conceived as a gift to her husband.
No character consistency in the latter half of the book. Just...none at all. Such a disappointment, after such an excellent first half!
While I am griping, let me say how deeply annoyed I am over the "so beautiful no man can resist her" plot. Yes, I know, Marek Halter had to give some plausible reason for the Pharaoh to want to take Sarai so badly. But couldn't it have been anything other than beauty? I am so tired of stories which make physical attractiveness the most important aspect of female characters. There are many other plausible reasons for the Pharaoh to desire Sarai so intensely that he would make her a widow in order to get her -- Orson Scott Card came up with a fantastic one in his take on this story, Sarah. The incessant harping, in the last half of the book, on the way Sarai was so much more beautiful than any other woman on the planet that literally no man could resist the desire to do her gave me uncomfortable flashbacks to Wild, the worst book I've read all year.
So...four stars for the first half of the book, two for the last half. I meet myself in the middle with three.
Marek Halter's writing is good enough, and the historical detail exciting enough, that I will read the rest of The Canaan Trilogy, with the hope that character is handled better in the next two books.(less)
For being such a nonbelieving atheist-pants, I can get into a Biblical yarn like nobody's business. Whether you believe the tales in the Bible hold an...moreFor being such a nonbelieving atheist-pants, I can get into a Biblical yarn like nobody's business. Whether you believe the tales in the Bible hold any shred of truth or are pure imagination, there's no denying that they have had a mighty influence on Western culture, and I am nothing if not a product of my awesome, cheeseburger-eating, fossil-fuel-burning, Bible-thumping culture. Even if I am a godless heathen.
Being that I am a) a big fan of Biblical fiction and b) objective enough about the Bible to take it as fair game for fictionalizing to the content of any author's heart, I feel I am an especially credible reviewer of such novels. I will take no offense at, say, scenes of Jacob-turned-Israel fondling his nether shepherd's staff, as happens in Anita Diamant's masterful Bible-based novel The Red Tent. Depictions of Biblical characters as real, fallible human beings faze me not one tiny iota, and I am far more concerned with an author's craft -- narrative, prose, character, dialogue, plot -- than with adherence to the Biblical source. Therefore, if The Lavender gives a Biblical novel a five-star review, you can be assured that you will find between its covers a genuinely enjoyable reading experience, judged in terms of readability and craft, and not merely a kowtow to the Book of Genesis.
That disclaimer aside, Card has done a remarkably good job of rendering the actual content in the Abraham/Sarah/Lot/Lot's Wife segment of Genesis into a very enjoyable historical novel. Par for the Card course (if you don't count his most recent books, anyway), the characterization is expertly crafted. The dialogue flows splendidly. And the plot never drags. This book should appeal to both the godless heathens who are just after an engaging ancient-history yarn and the fans of the Bible who want to see a faithful (pardon the pun) adaptation.
Card does depart from Biblical record in one relatively minor way: SPOILER ALERT: Lot's wife, the eminently smack-able Qira, is destroyed in what appears to be an asteroid strike/fireballs from heaven when she turns back for Sodom, rather than being turned into the familiar pillar of salt. However, I actually liked that Card chose to use a more plausible means of ridding the world of Qira, and his explanation of how he came to that decision in the author's afterword is quite satisfying.
Also satisfying to this non-believer is the way the Noah story is given roots in the Utnapishtim tale from the Epic of Gilgamesh, making Card's Sarah feel thoroughly based in the real world, where real cultures interact and influence one another, rather than a purely fantasy world where everything is exactly as it's depicted in the Bible. The Noah bit is more of a brief sideline, though, and it, too, should not be a big deterrent to readers who prefer their Bible fiction to be extra-Bibley.
From a historical perspective, although I lack a great knowledge of ancient Hebrew herder culture, I am fairly well-versed in ancient Egyptian culture, and I was well pleased with the section of the novel spent in Pharaoh's Egypt. Card clearly did his book-learning and depicted Dynastic Egyptian culture -- and its contrast to herder Sarai's more conservative culture -- well.
The characters are very well-drawn in this book, and the relationship between Sarai and Abram is wonderfully sweet and touching, particularly as they grow older. The decision to end the book at the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers was a good one -- it leaves the reader to imagine for herself how Sarah might have reacted to Abraham's return from his little father-son jaunt, especially if the convenient ram in the thicket hadn't shown up. Sarah's internal monologue of love and gratitude as she watches her husband and only child depart for their fateful journey is so much more poignant because Card deftly leaves the reader hanging on Sarah's plucked heartstring, picturing her heartbreak, her rage, or her joy and devotion when the whole morally questionable episode is concluded.
All in all, this is a fun historical read with some images that will stick with the reader long after she's closed the book. I recommend it.(less)
The fact that I was raised in an LDS family probably has something to do with my liking for this book, although I am not a religious person anymore. H...moreThe fact that I was raised in an LDS family probably has something to do with my liking for this book, although I am not a religious person anymore. However, Saints is more than just "Mormon fiction" or even "religious fiction." It's really good historical fiction, and if you're a fan of the genre you owe it to yourself to read this book.
It was written early in Card's career, before he began (in my opinion) phoning it in. Saints comes from the same inspired, energetic, ultra-creative Orson Scott Card who gave us Wyrms, Hart's Hope, and the Alvin Maker series, not to mention Ender's Game and his exceptional early-career short fiction.
Like his other works from the same era, Saints is astonishingly vivid, in terms of both prose and atmosphere. It paints a gritty, dark scene of Industrial England, with all its societal injustices; and set atop this canvas is the tragic portrait of a family of good people slowly being torn apart. The subtle darkness and deep emotion are pure classic Card, as is the delicacy of the writing. Before the phone-it-in phase, Card was the best of the best at character development, particularly through dialog; and the interactions between the Kirkham family as they strive for their own identities and desires make for a priceless study in character.
The latter portion of the book takes place in America, once some of the Kirkhams have left England to join up with the "Saints" -- the other members of the fledgling Mormon Church. As a no-longer-Mormon, I found it just a tad amusing that a novel written by a staunch Mormon took such liberties in portraying the characters of important Church founders, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They were not always portrayed in the most favorable light -- which is only a testament to how good Card's writing was during this phase of his career. It would have been easy for this author to make these characters virtually infallible, but Card was better back then at creating real characters. The fact that he chose to portray Smith, Young, and others as men with real, often serious personality flaws speaks to the quality of the reading experience and this novel's deserved place among the best historical novels.
What keeps this one from being a full-on five stars? Two things.
First, in the final fifth or sixth of the book it begins to feel a bit too much like a sermon for this nonbeliever's taste. The majority of the book is excellent, engaging, exceptionally-written historical fiction. The final small chunk goes a bit too religious; but by then, I was too invested in the characters to stop reading.
Second, as good as Card is at creating believable characters (in this work and others), Dinah has a personality change that just doesn't jive with the way her character is established early on. Dinah is portrayed from the get-go as a critical thinker, skeptical and in need of seeing some serious evidence before she'll believe anything anybody tells her. In fact, her rocky relationship with her father seems to have been put into the novel specifically to set her up as the most skeptical character in the book. But once she hears the Mormon message, she is instantly ready to believe it without further evidence.
Undoubtedly Card intended the reader to grasp the inherent believability of the Mormon missionaries' message specifically BECAUSE Dinah is such a critical thinker. We're to think, "If Dinah can believe it so easily, then any of these characters can believe it." Alas for Card, the trick doesn't come off so well. He does such a fine job of establishing Dinah's skepticism early on that her instant acceptance of the message and her total willingness to make enormous personal sacrifices to travel to America and become a Saint come off as being totally out of character.
(As an aside, there is some focus in the latter part of the novel on the urgency the men felt in spreading the "doctrine" of polygamy amongst their congregation. Many readers will find this highly unpalatable, but as a fan of historical fiction, and as a person with a fairly in-depth knowledge of the history of the Mormon church, I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book. The "doctrine" was a major sticking point in the church's early development, broke it into factions, and ultimately affected the history not only of the church but of our nation -- read up on the State of Deseret and Brigham Young's very interesting/disturbing life -- and his conflicts with President Buchanan -- for a real eye-opener! I thought giving polygamy such weight in this novel was a smart move...rather than making the book "more Mormon," it made the book more relevant to American history.)
Well, no author is perfect, nor is any book. Saints' flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths, and Dinah is quickly back to her clear-headed self, and the story resumes in a satisfying way with only the slight residual discomfort of having gone over a kind of character speed bump. I still rank Saints among my favorite historical novels, and certainly among my favorite books by Orson Scott Card.(less)