Saturday, May 26, 2012

Michelle Moran, eat your heart out!

4.5 out of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I was asked by the author, Lavender Ironside, to read and write a fair and honest review of this book. No monies or other favors were promised or exchanged by either party in return for this review and I had never had previous contact with said author.

I'll be honest. Normally I shy away from self-published and independently-published books for the mere fact that I have a very strident and strict editor in my head. When I read books, even mainstream, big house-published books, and find errors, that editor aches to pop out and start flaying the pages with a bold red pencil. Knowing that self-published works suffer even more as they lack the polish a professional editor can achieve, I just don't want to put myself through that kind of anguish, as I would no longer be reading the book for pleasure, but constantly seeking out and destroying all the errors. Not to mention many of the stories put out there are often amateurish, juvenile, and downright execrable. However, almost none of those things apply to The Sekhmet Bed, and my inner editor and I were able to enjoy the book with a minimum of red pencil usage.

In brief, The Sekhmet Bed, the first of a planned trilogy, details the early years of Hatshepsut's life.  It focuses on her mother, Ahmose, Great Royal Wife of Thutmose I, who was Pharaoh of Egypt from 1506 to 1493 B.C.E., and the dynamic between them and Ahmose's sister, Mutnofret, who was Thutmose's Second Wife.  Thutmose is a commoner, a dynamic military leader; Ahmose is the daughter of Pharaoh Amenhotep I.  Yet the family of Amenhotep chooses Thutmose as successor and Ahmose as his wife, in order to validate his position as Egypt's ultimate ruler.  Soon Ahmose begins to have prophetic dreams about the child she and Thutmose will create, a great Pharaoh who will bring an era of peace and prosperity to the land.  But when this child, created out of god-given dreams and hoped-for desires, turns out to be a girl, whom they name Hatshepsut, Ahmose's insistence that this girl-child be treated as the future Pharaoh creates a coldness in her relationship between her and Thutmose, a chill which is happily dissipated by Mutnofret, to Ahmose's dismay.

This is a very truncated synopsis of the novel and doesn't capture the sense of adventure, betrayal, drama, and romance contained in its pages. (Wow, that list is alphabetized, which was totally unconscious on my part  How weird!  But I digress....)  Ironside has managed to write a novel full of compelling characters as well as intense, atmospheric settings. Frankly, she leaves Michelle Moran in the dust; anyone who compares Lavender Ironside to Moran is insulting Ironside.  Editors should be beating down Ironside's door to represent her and publishers should be sitting up and taking notice. The interactions between characters feel real and authentic; the insertion of mystical elements doesn't compromise the integrity of the historical setting as they're not presented as thought they're really happening (except to the person experiencing them, which is only natural; people who have divine visions believe they're real, even if no one else does or understand what they're talking about). The "bad guy" character, Mutnofret, is sufficiently despicable, yet she occasionally shows flashes of humanity in the way she wavers from her actions and shows doubt--which is how "bad guy" characters ought to be written. Even the protagonist isn't perfect as she does things which are questionable and acts out, behaving quite badly at times. About the only character who isn't as fully developed is Thutmose and that's probably because for a lot of the novel he isn't present.

It's obvious Ironside did her research as she was able to deviate from some of the accepted theories concerning the characters in an authentic manner, unlike some authors who maybe skim some of the research and decide, to hell with it, they're going to write the story the way they want to, no matter how things really happened. One of the interesting deviations was the way Ironside presented the marriage of Ahmose, Mutnofret, and Thutmose. The prevailing theory is that Thutmose was originally married to Mutnofret--who may or may not have been related to Ahmose as well as Amenhotep I--they had three or four sons, and then Mutnofret died well before Amenhotep I died and Thutmose married Ahmose. However, by making Mutnofret not only a contemporary of Ahmose, but her sister and sister wife, Ironside neatly introduces a built-in package of tension and strife into the royal household, giving her a rich storyline to mine for drama. This alternate history is presented in such an authentic manner, it's easy to believe that it could've been true.

Ironside also did what I've been ranting about for years: she used the true Egyptian names for divinities and titles rather than their Greco-Egyptian counterparts. That said, for some of the gods she kept their Greek names, i.e. Osiris and Hathor rather than Ausar/Asar and Het-Heru (which means 'House of Heru [Horus]', just as an aside), which seemed rather strange. However, I was just happy that she even bothered using the ancient Egyptian language in the first place. It has annoyed me for quite some time when I see historical fiction set in ancient Egypt and an author is using the Greek transliterations of Egyptian words. How difficult would it be to use Ausar, Auset, Heru, Tehuti, Nebt-Het and simply place a glossary in the front of the book? It doesn't take long to understand that Tehuti is Thoth or Nebt-Het is Nephthys and using their real names makes the novel that much more authentic.

Other than a few editing errors (punctuation errors, the occasional misspelling, missed capitalization) which are to be expected, the book was surprisingly well-written, taut and streamlined. Surprising for the mere fact that I didn't expect it to be so; I expected to find a lot more extraneous narration or choppy dialogue. There was none. Which means finally I've found a writer of ancient Egyptian historical fiction who can wipe the stench of Michelle Moran from my brain. Which also means I'm eagerly looking forward to the next installment in Ironside's series.

By the way, I'm simply an armchair Egyptologist. I've been fascinated by the subject for many, many years, but I've never undertaken a scholarly investigation of the subject. My (scanty) knowledge comes from years of absorbing books and other works on the subject. So if something I've pointed out as being wrong isn't, in fact, wrong, then I accept that I'm the one who's wrong. Is that enough wrongs to make a right?

Read December 18-24, 2011
Originally reviewed on Goodreads January 30, 2012

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