Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Hippopotamus Marsh (Lords of the Two Lands #1)

4.5 out of 5 stars

Let me state, right off the bat, this is an excellent book. It is truly the standard by which all ancient Egyptian historical fiction novels should be measured...for the most part (I'll explain in a moment). The research is impeccable, thorough without being overwhelming and used appropriately (meaning that Pauline Gedge knows when to hold back and let the story take over and when to use her research to enhance/explain a scene). No info dumps here! The story itself moves along a brisk pace, the tension and action nicely balanced with more introspective, character-centered moments--it neither drags nor wears the reader out with never-ending action. The language is where Gedge truly shows her talent: the dialogue is beautiful, neither anachronistically modern (thus jarring the reader out of the book's ancient setting) nor so archaically formal that the reader is forced into multiple re-reads in order to decipher what was said; the narrative truly immerses the reader in the sights, sounds, and textures of ancient Egypt, to the point where I felt I could reach out and stroke the sweat-slicked flesh of the characters as they sat under Ra's implacable eye or smell the intoxicating scents of perfumed oil cones as they melted, the oil soaking the gauzy linen sheaths and kilts of the banqueters as they feasted in a stuffy, noisy dining hall. Certain hist. fiction authors who are currently the darlings of the publishing world, whom shall remain nameless here (although I will give out the initials P.G. and M.M.), should take note of Gedge's creative writing ability and follow her most excellent example.

Now to explain the "for the most part" bit from earlier. Bear with me as my one criticism- no, that's the wrong word. How about I say 'problem' instead? My one problem with the book is rather nebulous and difficult to explain. While all of what I've said in the previous paragraph is true, while Gedge brings to life these ancient peoples and places and personages to a degree that is to be envied and admired, the characters themselves, most especially those who are responsible for driving the story, still don't feel as fully fleshed as they could be, as though they're missing whatever it is that would make them jump off the pages and become real human beings. To contrast, Conn Iggulden, whose Genghis series I'm currently reading, has to deal with some of the same issues as Gedge in bringing his characters to life, i.e. taking an historical personage about whom more myth than reality is written/known and creating a real human being from the scraps of truth to be found in such myths and legends. Yet Conn's Temujin/Genghis doesn't just leap off the page, he smashes his way through the flimsy wood pulp and weak ink letters which hold him captive. And the same dynamism is true of all the other characters in Genghis's life: some are weak, some are cunning, some are utterly depraved and despicable, and some are brave, noble, conflicted, innocent, dependable--in other words they are human, with human foibles and human drives. With the characters in The Hippopotamus Marsh I don't get that same sense of reality. Yes, we are shown the motivations of Seqenenra and his son Kamose, their pride and sense of honor, as they chafe under the rule of the Setiu/Hyksos king Apepa; the conflicted outrage of Kamose's twin brother Si-Amun as he traps himself in a no-way-out situation; the wise resignation of Seqenenra's wife Aahotep, the haughty grandeur of Tetisheri, the matriarch of the family, and the lesser motivations of the rest of the family. Yet I never really got a sense of each character's depth beyond those surface impressions. And this is where the nebulousness comes in, as the depth of personality for each of these characters (which I'm sure will deepen as the series progresses) is perfectly adequate (and in comparison to some hist. fiction downright marvelous). Taken in combination with the rest of the elements of Gedge's writing, The Hippopotamus Marsh becomes a work of fiction which is quite astonishing and absolutely amazing to read. So why am I complaining? I guess because I want to go deeper, I want to know more about these characters--Kamose, Seqenenra, Tani, Ramose, Aahmes-Nefertari and the rest--I want them to break free of history's cobwebs, leap off the page and stand before me as they tell me their story, through Gedge's words, much as Conn Iggulden's Genghis Khan did. They seemed too tame, too calm, too remote for such dynamic history taking place around them.

One other quibble I have with the book, which ties in with the issue I pointed out above, is the action, compelling as it was, could've been more dynamic and more compelling to read. Once again, I need to refer to Iggulden as I've been spoiled by him and his depictions of battle, of blood and death, defeat and victory, depictions which are at once gruesome and engrossing. If I can smell the flood waters of the Nile, feel its life-giving mud slither through my fingers and the grit of the desert sand, then I should also be able to see the sweat and fear pouring off a soldier's face, hear the clashing of swords, the crash of shields, the twang of bowstrings, the hiss of blood as it sinks into the baking earth. Yet that never occurred. As with the personalities of the book's characters, the action is surface-level only: I saw the clash, I saw the tactics, the hope and fatigue of the soldiers, the humiliation of defeat, but I never felt the reality of the action taking place. Maybe it's simply due to a contrast in styles between a male and female author (and, god, I hate myself for even thinking that, let alone writing it, as I'm well aware of many female authors who can write kinetic and enthralling action scenes as well as, if not better than, male authors). Or perhaps it's simply that Gedge has so much territory to cover, she didn't feel the need to dwell on the battle scenes. Who knows?

What I do know is the issues I have with the novel are minor in comparison to The Hippopotamus Marsh's overall scope and readability. There may be a few (a very few) books out there which are better (and we all know "better" and "worse" are highly subjective adjectives), but there are certainly a great deal too many books which are worse--pieces of dreck which would have to climb onto extension ladders just to get close enough to reach out and aspire to Gedge's level of artistry.

Read March 9-14, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads March 18, 2012

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