Wednesday, March 19, 2014

“'By all the gods, 'Hotep, is [Akenaten] mad?' I asked... ...'Oh, yes,' he whispered into my shoulder. 'He is quite mad.'”

4 out of 5 stars

As it's been a while (a long while!) since I read this book, I don't think I'll be able to turn my notes into a coherent, "traditional" review, so I'll just post them here as-is.

-Like other reviewers have pointed out, the continued use of “the phallus” got old very quickly. After the first use, in fact. And, for me, it wasn't necessarily the use of the word 'phallus' that bothered me, though it was annoying enough; no, it was the fact that it was always referred to as “the phallus.” Greenwood slipped up one time and wrote “my phallus,” and, oh boy, I had a hearty chuckle over that.
--Once again, Nefertiti is portrayed as being beautiful yet stupid. I mean, I guess I can see that as one explanation as to why she goes along with Akenaten's new religion—Greenwood writes Nefertiti as extremely biddable and easily placated, as someone who won't be dissuaded from a path of action once she's fixed on it, no matter how much anyone argues with her to the contrary—I'm just getting tired of people writing beautiful women as also being stupid. Haven't there been many beautiful women, both famous, infamous, and ordinary, over the centuries who have been twice-cursed with both brains and beauty? Why not Nefertiti as well? I guess I'd just like to see her written as being rather canny, perhaps as a woman who used Akenaten for her purposes rather than simply bowed to his. Maybe I'm just daydreaming.
--I am not a lettered or professional historian or Egyptologist; I'm more what you would call an “armchair” expert. So I can't comment on the research Greenwood has done in order to write this book, though, to my eyes, it looks comprehensive enough. And some of the hypotheses she's used in her story seem perfectly reasonable, especially as regards to Akenaten's personality. After all, Akenaten was a cult leader, probably one of the first. He managed to convince an entire country, willing or not, to abandon their belief system in favor of a god, the Aten, he may not have necessarily created but certainly limned in the image decreed by Akenaten. Because of this high-handed approach, Akenaten, as described by Greenwood, is dreamy, unfocused, unconcerned with day-to-day problems, yet also completely ruthless, megalomaniacal, deluded as well as delusional, and completely willing to sacrifice anyone in the service of his religion and his goals for the Aten. The Amarna period is a fascinating one and ripe for all sorts of exploration and deconstruction by novelists. It's also quite vulnerable to revision, which makes the version presented by Greenwood the most realistic, even probable.
--I think the main problem I had with the book, apart from it not being a mystery despite what it says on the cover (which I really can't figure out, unless they're talking about the mystery of Amarna and the goings-on of Akenaten et al, but even that seems rather senseless). What was I saying? Oh, yes, the main problem I had with the book is that it seemed as though it couldn't decide whether to be a dynamic tale of two people set in the court of Akenaten or an expanded version of one of those “What Life was Like...” books, where the daily activities of the Amarna period are brought to life by showing a couple of characters, real or fictional, acting them out. The story itself was compelling, at its heart, that of two people, Mutnodjme, half-sister to Nefertiti, and Ptah-Hotep, Great Royal Scribe, who get caught up in the center of the whirlwind changes instigated by Akenaten, from their beginnings to the bitter end. The story alternates between those two P.O.V.s, which is fine. However, where the “What Life was Like...” aspect came in was with the insertion of almost tedious asides, such as the numerous poems and songs and fables and parables recited by one character or another for the edification of some other character and, by extension, the reader. After the first couple of these recitations, which didn't seem to have any bearing on the actual plot, I started skimming over the others whenever they appeared, which was quite frequently. It's not that I have anything against reading ancient Egyptian literature; quite the contrary, in fact. I just didn't see the point of inserting so many examples of their writing into the novel. Yes, when the characters quoted something wise or on point in regards to the action of the moment, those were relevant, but the others simply felt like an excuse for Greenwood to share some of her research with us.
--It was hilarious at the end of the book: Someone forgot to put the end tag to some italic text (yet another piece of Egyptian writing, this time an edict by Horemheb, concerning his right to the throne), meaning that the last two and a half pages of the book were italicized. This has been the poorliest (that's a word, right?) edited book of Greenwood's put out by Poison Pen Press that I've ever read. The constant italics were the worst error, but I saw many others as I read, usually having to do with punctuation. Was PPP in that much of a rush to publish this book that they could've have taken a bit more time to make sure it was a bit better edited? Seems sloppy to me.
--Yet the more I think about the book and remember the story, the more I like it, in spite of its problems and idiosyncrasies. It's a vivid, entertaining, richly detailed (and I do mean detailed) look at a period of ancient Egyptian history that, yes, has been covered quite extensively in the past. But because the Amarna period is a lively enough nonfiction subject, there's enough scope and depth to mine for inspiration, and the mysteries that come along with the facts provide ample fodder for intelligently hypothesized solutions to those mysteries. Thankfully, Kerry Greenwood is an intelligent and competent enough writer to tackle those mysteries and do them some justice.

Read from August 15-20, 2013
Reviewed March 19, 2014

No comments:

Post a Comment