10 July, 2007

Nefertiti, by Michelle Moran. Book review

Edition reviewed: uncorrected proof, Crown, 2007, ISBN 978-0-307-38146-0

Set in Egypt towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, in 1351-1335 BC, Nefertiti tells the story of two sisters at the heart of Egypt’s royal family. All the main characters in the novel are historical personages.

Nefertiti is the elder sister, beautiful, ambitious and egotistical, who desires wealth and power. Mutnodjmet, the younger sister, is sensible, thoughtful, affectionate, pretty rather than beautiful, and hopes for love and a happy family life. Nefertiti’s marriage to the Pharaoh Akhenaten as his Chief Wife provides her with the opportunity to gain the power she craves, and plunges Mutnodjmet into a world of ruthless political intrigue. Nefertiti and the sisters’ father, Grand Vizier Ay, thrive on politics and plotting, but Mutnodjmet longs for a quiet family life with her love, the military officer Nakhtmin. Can Mutnodjmet emerge from her sister’s shadow and make the life that she wants for herself?

If this sounds reminiscent of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, that’s because I found the similarities striking. The scheming court, the slippery politicians in family factions who use their daughters to gain power, the erratic and all-powerful ruler, and most of all the two sisters and their contrasting quests for power or love. Readers who enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl will probably find much to like in Nefertiti.

Nefertiti is rich in period detail. Clothing, fabrics, perfume, make-up, jewellery, furniture, food, markets, building techniques, herbs and their medicinal uses, tombs, burial rites, gods and religion are all lovingly described. If you have ever tried to imagine how the numerous Egyptian artefacts in museums were used in real life, you’ll find the descriptions fascinating.

The central characters of Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet (Mutny for short) are well drawn. I found Mutny, who narrates the novel in first person, much the more sympathetic of the two. Nefertiti’s selfishness, constant demands for her own way and apparent willingness to sacrifice her sister’s happiness for her own ambitions make her a compelling figure but not a very likeable one. The unstable Pharaoh Akhenaten is a spoilt child who throws temper tantrums and expects other people to pick up the pieces. His obsession is changing the religion of Egypt from its numerous traditional gods and goddesses to worship of a single god, the sun-disk or Aten. This experiment, known now as the Amarna heresy, was unpopular and near-disastrous, and was swiftly reversed after Akhenaten’s death. In the novel, Nefertiti is placed as Akhenaten’s wife by her family in the hope that she will control his religious obsession, but instead she panders to it as a way of bolstering her position at the expense of Akhenaten’s other wife. This could have been very interesting to explore – did Nefertiti share her husband’s beliefs, did she recognise the damage he was doing and consciously accept it as the price of her own power, did she try to talk him out of his more crackpot schemes? But because the novel is told in first person through Mutnodjmet’s eyes, the reader never gets to see Nefertiti’s thoughts. There’s one line where Mutnodjmet wonders whether Nefertiti struggles with her conscience, and almost at the end of the novel Mutnodjmet is told by her father that Nefertiti had mitigated some of Akhenaten’s stupider decisions and thus limited the damage, but this aspect is never shown or explored in any detail.

I would also have liked to see how Nefertiti ruled as Pharaoh in her own right. Had she matured from the vain and foolish girl at the beginning of the story? Did she make a more successful job of running the country than her late husband? (Not a very high hurdle!). Yet the years of Nefertiti’s rule are skipped over in a few pages at the end of the novel, which seems a missed opportunity. It would have been fascinating to show a much-vaunted “strong woman” actually wielding political power in her own right. After having spent her lifetime obtaining it, what did she do with it?

The novel provides an interesting solution to some puzzles in Egyptian history. I gather that there is considerable confusion about the Amarna heresy and its aftermath, not least because subsequent rulers tried to expunge the ‘heretic Pharaoh’ from the records. For example, the identity of the Pharaoh Smenkhare who succeeded Akhenaten is unclear (see Wikipedia for some theories), and in the novel Smenkhare is explained as a coronation name taken by Nefertiti on her accession as Pharaoh. The author provides some useful historical notes on her website, though there was no author’s note in the book itself. However, this may have been because it was a proof copy, which would also explain the absence of the map referred to on the back cover (which would have been extremely helpful).

Richly detailed recreation of a fascinating episode in Egypt’s colourful history.


Susan Higginbotham said...

Looking forward to reading this one!

Marg said...

Me too!

Constance Brewer said...

Good review. I'll have to look for this one. :)

Rick said...

Mutnodjmet? I'm sure it's authentic, and "Mutny" is sort of cute, but in the holy name of Amon-Ra, couldn't she have found a prettier name for her protagonist?

Oops - strike that; I just realized that she was real; the author was stuck with her name and lucky to get Mutny out of it.

To me there's always a tiny oddity about hist-fic with a real, historical protagonist, because unless the person is well-recorded I always wonder what the real person was like - perhaps nothing at all like the character. Yet the character, if well-drawn, takes over, the way The Lion in Winter pretty much define Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in my mind.

I hope Mutny was at least pretty. It can't have been easy to be Nefertiti's kid sister, because if the bust of Nef is anything true to life she was an absolute stunner.

It's funny, I used to have a vaguely low opinion of the ancient Egyptians (that tacky stuff with pyramids and worshipping the Pharoah as a god). Over the years I've revised my opinion upward: Their taste was excellent, and as Bronze Age civilizations go they were pretty damn sensible to boot. But I'm left knowing far too little about them - it's never as easy to learn history as in junior high.

Carla said...

Susan, Marg, Constance - hope you enjoy it. 10 July was Official Publication Day, which I think refers to the US. It may be a bit later in the rest of the world.

Rick - you raise a common issue with names from cultures that are far distant in time and place. I don't mind strange-looking names - certainly I find them far less of a problem than 'medieval' characters with names like Blade, Jade, Wolf, Brianna and Topaz, or Aethelred shortened to Red - but I think I'm in a minority.

I have the same ambivalence towards fiction about real people. An extreme portrayal of a historical character without good evidence to back it up (e.g. the strong hint of incest between Anne and George Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl) is liable to make me feel uncomfortable. Which of course brings one on to the lack of evidence - Richard III can apparently be either a monster or a saint depending on interpretation! Eadwine as I've imagined him in Paths of Exile is quite a different character than the same man as imagined by Fay Sampson in Flight of the Sparrow - not as extreme as the portrayals of Richard III, but quite different nevertheless. I always wonder if I've been fair to him and, on bad days, whether I have any business applying my imagination to real people at all.

In the novel, Mutny is pretty and Nefertiti is like the bust, an absolute stunner. Her name means somthing like The Beautiful Woman Has Arrived, so perhaps the bust is true to life. Though what they looked like in real life is anyone's guess, as a lot of Egyptian art is highly stylised. There are one or two statues of Mutnodjmet extant, and I gather she was the second wife of Pharaoh Horemheb, a military type who was the next-but-one Pharaoh after King Tut (of the famous tomb). So she got to be Queen of Egypt too. (Horemheb is a secondary character in the novel, but Mutny in the novel falls for one of his officers, Nakhtmin. I'm mildly curious as to why the author chose to do that - perhaps to leave room for Horemheb's known first wife? And perhaps Horemheb and Mutny get together, perhaps both widowed, long after the end of the novel? But that was such an arcane query that it wasn't worth mentioning in the review!) As far as I can make out, it's not known whether the historical Nefertiti and the historical Mutnodjmet were sisters. This sort of thing is why I really like an Author's Note! I hope there's one in the finished edition.

Given that Ancient Egypt survived, what, a couple of thousand years or more, they must have been doing something right! As I was reading this, I thought the 18th Dynasty was a bit reminiscent of the Julio-Claudian Emperors - a nutcase hereditary ruler (Akhenaten, vs Caligula and/or Nero) making a complete mess of the country, followed by a military coup and reasonably competent rule by a sensible general (Horemheb and his successor Rameses, vs Vespasian). It's astonishing to me that great empires can apparently survive having a complete nutter at the top at regular intervals. I suppose that's the power of a bureaucracy :-)
I always find that the more I find out about an era, the more I realise I don't know. It gets quite daunting :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds great. I'll definitely have to read it.

I see on Amazon that the publication date in the UK is 2 August. On Amazon US, it already has eight reviews, which is amazing, considering it only came out there on 10 July (yesterday!) All the reviews are five stars.

Carla said...

Alianore - yes, the PR people are evidently very busy with this one! They must have sent out a lot of galley proofs. I see I'm not the only reader who was reminded of The Other Boleyn Girl.

Daphne said...

I ordered this Monday from Amazon. I'm planning on reading it as soon as it get here!

Rick said...

My grump about "Mutnodjmet" wasn't that it was strange, but - to my eye/ear - clunky, not that the author had any choice. ("Nefertiti" sounds much better ... or does it just have glamorous associations?)

But lord save me from Blade, Jade, Wolf, and Topaz! (Brianna at least sounds like a name, though I'd sure check its origin before using it.)

I've had some fun at times with old names now popular - a character calls his onetime syno-italian girlfriend Teofania "Mistress Tiffany," but you can only get away with that a little of that.

I wouldn't really buy Ethelred called "Red" either, unless he's a redhead, but then Wulfgar, Eadwine, or even Cynethrith should have just as much right to be "Red," if their hair is.

Real people in hist-fic fall into at least two distinct classes to me. If the person is well recorded, the author's portrait had better fit what I know, or credibly challenge it. Incest between Anne and George B. flunks that one hard. That's the charge that convinces me they were all phony, Henry VIII's wounded vanity through and through.

If I were writing Richard III, I'd make him a) guilty, and b) not the Shakespearean monster. Partly because that's my surmise of the facts, partly to get both sides mad at me. (But is there really much active anti-Ricardianism out there? And is anyone more utterly friendless than Henry VII?)

But there's something vaguely disquieting about characters who are known to be real, but about whom very little is actually known. It's as if they have no defense. If I wonder about an author's Edward II, I can go to the history and draw an independent judgment. Where do I go to draw my own conclusions about Eadwine? A paragraph in Bede, and a line or two in annals?

You and Fay Sampson can draw completely different pictures of the man, equally credible, because our source material is so scanty that anything you make of it is more reconstruction than interpretation. This is no objection, just a strangeness about obscure but real people as major characters.

Carla said...

Daphne - Hope you enjoy it! I'll be interested to hear what you think.

Rick - I think Nefertiti has glamorous associations, because the mental image that instantly flashes into the mind at the mention of the name is the bust. I didn't find Mutnodjmet a noticeably more clunky name than Nefertiti, as far as I recall (though maybe I did at first and then got used to it as I was reading the book - that sometimes happens).

Blade, Wolf and similar names (Topaz, as you'll know if you followed the links, is a parody)all seem to be catering to a specific sector of the market, which happens to be one I don't fall into. I guess the novels using Red, Stan and Lae are either on the fringes of that same market, or it was thought that the original names were too difficult to 'relate' to.

Agreed, the charges against Anne look trumped-up. Antonia Fraser makes the point that Henry was distraught when divorcing Catherine Howard (who really had slept around, at least before her marriage), but very calm when getting rid of Anne, which she interprets as indicating that he didn't believe the adultery charges against Anne either.

I'm not sure exactly where I stand on Richard III and the princes. I'll believe that he usurped the throne without good legal grounds, and I have some sympathy with him if he did, because a royal minority would likely have led to a re-run of the Wars of the Roses and taking the throne may have looked like (and may well have been) the lesser of two evils. I'm less convinced that he murdered them, because having them disappear while in his custody seems a dim-witted way to get rid of them, as the subsequent rumours and gossip were bound to be terribly damaging. There again, I can't immediately think of a better method. Even if they'd died of natural causes, Richard would have got blamed anyway. But, as you say, at least with Richard one can review the evidence and draw one's own conclusions.

I get the impression that the prevailing fashion is pro-Richard, which means poor Henry VII is going to be cast as the villain for a while yet. I'd expect it to swing back to the opposite pole when enough people get bored with the current received wisdom. Expect then to see a dashing and heroic Henry VII, riding on a white charger to reclaim his kingdom after years of cruel exile - you can drop Henry's story into a classic Return-of-the-King heroic narrative without having to try, so I'd imagine it's only a matter of time. Mind you, he's not female, so that counts heavily against him in current publishing fashion. Maybe the best you can hope for for Henry is as the HEA in a book about Elizabeth of York :-)

You get a bit more than a paragraph in Bede and a line in an annal. One reason I picked Eadwine as a character is because he's one of the first people in Bede's account with enough information recorded about him to hang a story on. Book 2, chapters 9-20, if you want to look it up :-) There's also a few lines in the Welsh poem Moliant Cadwallon and a couple of the Triads, which were written down very late, but may draw on genuine early tradition, and provide a snippet from an opposing viewpoint. I felt I could get at least an impression of his character, so I wasn't working entirely in the dark as I would have been with, say, Ida, Aethelferth or Penda. That said, there was still an awful lot to make up.

Rick said...

I imagine it's mostly the association with the bust that makes Nefertiti's name sound glam. After all, I once knew a quite striking young woman whom everyone called Fritz - no idea why - giving that name an alluring connotation it certainly wouldn't have otherwise.

Only after posting did I follow the links and see that Topaz was a parody. (Great work, Susan!)

Character names like Blade and Wolf sound a bit comic book, a bit D&D, a bit punk rock, and a bit Mad Max style post-apocalyptic.

Maybe the appeal, to people who like those names, is a whiff of Lost Boys - it puts us in a world with no adult supervision. You just don't see Lord Blade and Lady Summer, 20 years later, fretting over whom to marry their daughter Lady Fox to, or how much money they'll need to borrow to repair the castle.

Regarding Richard III, a royal minority was a big worry in 1485, though Edward V was about 12 - only about 4 years from being of age, by period standards. Maybe Richard painted himself into an impossible corner. As you say, if the boys died naturally he'd be blamed anyway, and it's always possible that overzealous subordinates did a Beckett.

Henry VII ought to sue Francis Bacon, and never should have hired the guy who painted the most familiar picture of him. There's nothing like a reputation as miserly and gloomy to ruin all hope of romance.

It's indicative that there isn't even a readily available biography of him. None of the usual suspects like Frazer or Weir has touched him. So far as the popular culture goes - even the semipopular culture of history buffs - the Tudor Saga runs from 1509 to 1603.

But maybe someone will take up your Elizabeth of York suggestion!

I didn't realize that the information on Eadwine is a bit less sketchy.

Now I have to go and re-follow the links from yesterday, because via either Susan or Alianore I got to an interesting 1998 commentary on characters with anachronistic attitudes, especially feminist ones. It was specific to YA, but obviously not limited to YA.

My own take - something I'll be blogging about, as a change of pace from space - is that a female character can get away with quite a bit if she'd just shut up. In the old movies, Maureen O'Hara did cool stuff, but never felt obligated to explain herself by channeling Germaine Greer.

Michelle Moran said...

Hi Carla,

Thank you for taking the time to post such a thoughtful review! I emailed you to tell you so, but the letter bounced. About your question on why I chose to have Mutny (and yes, I agree with everyone here about her name, but I was stuck with it!) fall in love with General Nakhtmin, it's because there is strong archaeological evidence that Horemheb took Mutnodjmet by force as his wife. Theirs was certainly not a love match, and it's very likely that Mutny had been married, or at least in love, before Horemheb made her his queen.

Horemheb married Mutnodjmet after Nefertiti and the rest of her family died and Mutny was the last royal link to the throne. Since the book focuses only on Nefertiti's reign, I wanted to depict Mutnodjmet's early life when she married for love, not because she had to.

As for the certainty of Nefertiti and Mutnodjmet being sisters, there is no 100% certainty, but Mutny appears in a younger sister role throughout many of the Amarna artifacts, and the fact the Horemheb took her by force as his wife strongly suggests that she was Nefertiti's sister. There are quite a few other reasons as to why Egyptologists believe they were sisters, many of which are spelled out in Nefertiti's biographies by Joyce Tyldesley and Joann Fletcher.

I hope this helps! And yes, there is an Author's Note at the end of the book. There will be an even longer one in the paperback version, but in the proofs it didn't appear.

Carla said...

Rick - I'm not certain whether Blade may also be a parody (Susan and Alianore would know). Wolf, alas, is not.

I think you have a point about a Lost Boys fantasy world. I'd say no adult responsibilities, rather than no adult supervision. I think all romances appeal to a certain amount of that, and the more far-fetched they are, the more they appeal to it. James Bond is a boy's fantasy of unlimited gadgets, success and women, many romances in the publishing category sense of the word are a female fantasy about being loved, looked after and wearing pretty clothes without having to do very much except look pretty, "to sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam". Romances in the John Buchan sense are about people and places somewhat removed from the quotidian - nobody ever has to work at a tedious job or do the washing-up. I'm as guilty, though I do have a character comment wryly, "a narrow escape from death, rape or slavery didn't mean you could all take the day off".

Unfortunately Henry VII now has a reputation of being a boring miser, so Fraser, Weir and co, and more importantly their publishers, don't think a biography would sell a gazillion copies, whereas the 1509-1603 crop of Tudors are a much better bet for plenty of sex and scandal. I haven't counted, but I bet there are fewer biographies of Mary Tudor and Edward VI than of Henry VIII and his wives, Elizabeth I and Jane Grey.

Anachronistic feminist attitudes are a pet peeve of a lot of historical fiction readers :-) Me included, though for poorly-docmented periods I will concede that we don't have a clue about the society's values and so for all we know it might have been full of New Age feminists. It's very often the words or concepts that annoy me - channelling Germaine Greer, as you put it - rather than the actions. Eleanor of Aquitaine did some pretty outrageous things, as did a good many other medieval women, not to mention Raedwald's queen ticking him off about his foreign policy within earshot of at least one listener, but I bet none of them went round talking about liberation, rights, equality, self-fulfilment, work-life balance or empowerment.

Carla said...

Hi Michelle, and thanks for dropping by. I'm glad you liked the review. Try the email address on my website if my Yahoo address is bouncing - I think Yahoo might have a block on mail from hotmail accounts at the moment.

Many thanks for answering my query about Horemheb. What's the evidence that he married Mutny by force? I'm not familiar with the period, so I'd be fascinated to know more about that.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, Rick! Though my Topaz was a parody, as Sarah pointed out in the comments to that blog, there is, alas, a real novel featuring a Topaz Plantagenet as the heroine.

I keep wondering whether someone will do Elizabeth Woodville as a sympathetic heroine. She's beautiful, which for some novelists is a recommendation in itself, and depending on which sources you believe, she may have been involved in a lot of scheming, which is good plot fodder. But in every recent novel I can think of, she's a villain.

Rick said...

Carla - It's very often the words or concepts that annoy me - channelling Germaine Greer, as you put it - rather than the actions.

Exactly. It's usually the rhetoric - feminist, or egalitarian, or whatever - that rings phony. And yes, "no adult responsibilities" is what I really mean. There's always an element of this in Romance (in the broad sense), but skilled authors at least nod to the realities.

Susan - I missed Sarah's comment, but "Topaz Plantagenet?" Aaargh. As for Elizabeth Woodville, no one seems to have a good word to say for her!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

There was a BBC series many years ago that painted Henry VII in a positive light. I thoroughly enjoyed it - better than Glenda Jackson's Elizabeth I even. If I ever abandoned Medieval and went Tudor, then I'd do a Sharon Kay Penman in reverse and adjust the spotlight on Henry VII. From what I've seen as an impartial observer of Richard III, he's turned from an evil child-murdering hunchback into Saint Richard who never had a bad thought in his life. I think a bit of redressing wouldn't go amiss all round.

Carla said...

Susan - I hoped Sarah was joking....! Does the rest of the book live up to the heroine's name?
Elizabeth Woodville is traditionally seen as opposing Richard III, isn't she? (No idea how well that reflects real history). In which case the pro-Ricardians probably gravitate naturally to being anti-Elizabeth. You know the history better than I do - can one write a sympathetic Elizabeth Woodville as heroine without making Richard III a villain? Or maybe one could get round that by just doing her secret marriage to Edward VI as a romance plot (King risks his throne for the beautiful woman he loves more than life or honour), finishing with their wedding as the HEA. Actually, I think you've put your finger on the reason when you say she may have been involved in a lot of scheming - scheming women seem to be traditionally villainesses.

Rick - I think the intrusion, or not, of reality is more a function of the aims of the book than the skill of the author. Arguably it might be harder to maintain a story on a diet of pure fantasy without sustenance from plausibility. I can't do it.

Elizabeth - Well, if you ever write it, I for one will read it! I don't remember the BBC TV series, which is a shame. Shakespeare did such a good job of calumniating Richard that people have sprung to his defence, and perhaps rather o'erleaped themselves. I doubt he deserved his Shakespearean portrayal, but I also doubt he was a sensitive saint, either. A portrayal somewhere in the middle is long overdue.

Sarah Johnson said...

Carla - unfortunately I wasn't joking about Topaz on Susan's blog! If you google "topaz plantagenet" you'll find the novel in question.

My copy of The Wars of the Roses in Fiction shows several novels that may be pro-Elizabeth Woodville, though they're those rare Robert Hale types. If I own any of them, I'll try to write up a review at some point, though I'm not nearly as knowledgeable about the period as others.

And thanks for the review - I enjoyed reading it, and (for Michelle) I look forward to reading your novel! I've had an ARC staring at me for a couple months now and plan to read it after my required reading's done.

Susan Higginbotham said...

I do have a 1969 novel by Jan Westcott, The White Rose, in which Elizabeth Woodville is sympathetic (and in which Richard III offs the Princes). But that's the most recent I have on my shelves, I think.

There's also a 1972 novel by Jean Stubbs called An Unknown Welshman with Henry VII as the hero. It ends on Henry and Elizabeth's wedding night.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Oh, and Michelle, I'm first in my library queue for your book! Hope it comes in soon!

Michelle Moran said...

Sarah and Susan - thank you, and I hope you both enjoy the book!

And to Carla, re your question about Mutny being forced into marriage with Horemheb. The evidence is circumstantial: it comes from Horemheb's lack of a royal link to the crown. There are Eggptologists who contend that Horemheb used the marriage to legitimize his accession to the throne. I would agree with this, given that he destroyed everything Nefertiti, Akhenaten and Ay ever built. I couldn't fathom Mutny standing quietly by while the monuments that were supposed to write her family's name in eternity were destroyed, block by block. Horemheb was methodical in his attempt to erase her family's name from history, and he very nearly succeeded.

However, there are just as many Egyptologists who would argue that this is all, as I pointed out, circumstantial, and that there is no hard evidence of the marriage being unwanted by Mutny. As I wrote in my Author's Note (which you didn't get to see), I simply went with what seemed most convincing to me.

These are great questions that you've brought up, and I plan to include them on my website's QA. Thank you!

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh wow, there I thought it would be time enough to read that review on the weekend, and now it has gathered some 20 replies and I missed all the fun. ;)

It's not only funny names and historical characters doing things that cannot be reconciled with the sources at all, it's also missing the mentality of the time that irks me, and I keep finding that in some romances that have correct names and most facts down. Understanding how people thought 2000 or 800 years back is the most complicated part of research.

Carla said...

Sarah - Amethyst as well, I see :-) Gives you fair warning. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Nefertiti when you've read it - will you post the review somewhere?

Susan - so that's, what, 30-odd years? Henry and Elizabeth W ought to be due a revival. Hope you enjoy Nefertiti, and I'll be interested to hear your opinion.

Michelle - many thanks for coming back to answer my question! That's the appeal of historical fiction for me, that you can fill in blanks where the evidence is absent or inconclusive, and indicate it as such in the author's note so that people can investigate further if they want. Glad this was useful for your website Q&A.

Gabriele - you haven't missed all the fun, the thread doesn't close :-) Reconstructing a plausible past mindset is both fascinating and incredibly difficult.