Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 528 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the author’s publicist.
Nefertiti is one of ancient Egypt’s most legendary rulers. She was the Second Wife of the heretic king Akhenaten and, as Queen, had just as much influence and status as her husband. Renowned for her extraordinary beauty, she was more than a pretty face — as this compelling novel by Michelle Moran demonstrates.
In fact, the Nefertiti presented in this book is not exactly the most likeable of characters. She’s manipulative, calculating and shrewd. Despite the fact she was chosen to marry Akhenaten because everyone believed she was level-headed enough to tame his erratic, egotistical tendencies, she does the exact opposite. When her husband marks his rule by elevating a minor god, Aten, to a position of power, obliterating Amun and destroying all of Amun’s temples, she doesn’t bat an eyelid but actually encourages him to make further irregular and unpopular decisions.
And if that wasn’t enough, she’s riddled by jealousy over the Pharoah’s First Wife, Kiya, who has already given birth to a son and heir, and does whatever she can to bed her husband in an attempt to produce the next prince — with mixed results.
All the while Nefertiti’s younger sister, Mutnodjmet (Mutny), is treated like a slave who must obey the Queen’s every whim. As she watches Egypt become besieged by religious and cultural changes that she is powerless to stop, Mutny dreams of the day she can escape the clutches of the Royal Family so that she can live a quiet life, growing herbs and other plants in her own little oasis. When she falls in love with the General Nakhtmin, she thinks she may have found her “get out clause”, but alas, Nefertiti doesn’t exactly see it that way…
This is a dramatic family saga that is full of corruption, intrigue and dirty tricks that kept me on tenterhooks throughout. Mutny is a delightful narrator, patient and wise, who charts her sister’s rise from teenage Queen to Egyptian goddess. And while I’m not sure how historically accurate Nefertiti’s portrayal is, this book certainly captures the flavour, sights and sounds of ancient Egypt so that it’s easy imagining yourself sailing down the Nile, or tucking into platters of honeyed nuts, plump figs and pomegranates, or wandering the altars draped in gold and crowned in myrrh.
The style of story-telling reminded me very much of Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers, which is also about one girl’s journey from innocence to adulthood, although Nefertiti is less about the subjugation of women and more about the subjugation of an entire race of people, male and female alike.
This is by no means high-brow literary fiction, but it’s an entertaining, fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable romp, with a smidgen of romance, a touch of war and a little bit of double-dealing thrown in for good measure. I found the ending surprisingly suspenseful but despite the 460-odd pages I didn’t want the story to draw to close, and I was genuinely sad when I reached the final page.
I had a lot of fun reading Nefertiti and I suspect many others will do so too.