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Michelle Moran

REVIEW: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

REVIEW: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Dear Ms. Moran:

While I was reading your new novel, The Heretic Queen, I kept thinking about Shelley’s poem about Ramesses II, “Ozymandias,” especially these lines: `My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ The theme of Shelley’s poem is the impermanence of human power, which is echoed in your novel in the sense that the legacy of these historical figures is both greater and lesser than their actual human-ness.   In The Heretic Queen, for example, there is a somewhat idealized portrayal of Ramesses and his Chief Wife Nefertari, who seem both more and less than is suggested by the mammoth images that still exist to memorialize their contributions to ancient Egypt.   As a novel, The Heretic Queen offers a historically altered but readable story, the strengths of which are also some of its weaknesses.

The historical Pharaoh Ramesses II ruled Egypt for almost 70 years, overseeing one of Egypt’s most prodigious periods of growth and stability during the 19th dynasty.   Red-haired and relatively tall, Ramesses also bore many, many children (estimates top 100) with his many, many consorts (which likely include several of his own daughters) and actively contributed to his larger than life persona in many, many ways.   The Ramesses of The Heretic Queen begins his story at 17, when he becomes co-Regent (co-Pharaoh, basically) with his father, Seti I, and takes his first wife, Iset, a young woman of great beauty and strong ambitions to be chief wife.   Ramesses, however, is also close to Nefertari, princess and niece to Nefertiti, who, at 13, is still somewhat awkward and unsure, despite her obvious adoration of Ramesses, and a political risk as queen because of her heretic heritage.

After a year training at the temple of Hathor, however, under the tutelage of its High Priestess (Woserit) and one of Ramesses’s Viziers (Paser), Nefertari has grown into her beauty and her training in multiple languages and court politics, returning to the palace to catch more than just Ramesses’s eye.   Demonstrating a rashness that characterized the real pharaoh, Ramesses takes Nefertari to wife, clearly intending to make her Chief Wife above the jealous Iset, who has her own advocates in Woserit’s sister Henuttawy (High Priestess of Isis and sister to Seti) and the Vizier Rahotep.   Henuttawy and Rahotep are as ambitious to have Iset made Chief Wife as Woserit and Paser are to have Nefertari in that elevated role; however, they have more ruthlessness and, it appears, the ear of Thebes, which expresses enthusiastic displeasure at the idea of a “heretic queen” ruling Egypt and perhaps bringing more bad luck to the already draught-facing region.

The novel’s main conflicts are structured around the competition between Nefertari and Iset’s chances to become Chief Wife, with one wife characterized as the better match for Ramesses and the other as the better match for a superstitious people.   Where Nefertari is distinguished as a scholar and a diplomat, Iset is distinguished as a great beauty and an accomplished hostess.   Where Nefertari is feared by the people, Iset is embraced, except by Ramesses, whose affections for Nefertari are far deeper and more obvious than his professed love for Iset.   While revealed as more insecure and manipulated than villainous, Iset is clearly the lesser choice for Chief Wife, although Nefertari’s scandalous heritage makes her acceptance as the Pharaoh’s primary wife uncertain.   If Ramesses and Nefertari are to rule Egypt together as they wish, the people will have to embrace Nefertari as they do Iset, and much of the novel’s movement is propelled by the dual campaigns to secure and deter Nefertari’s elevation to Chief Wife.

This element of The Heretic Queen – a tale of dueling wanna-be queens – is recognizable as the narrative engine of Nefertiti, as well, and it is certainly a tried-and-true trope of historical fiction and historical Romance (I would call The Heretic Queen romantic historical fiction).   However, it also presents some problems in this novel, which are exacerbated by the novel’s most profound alteration of history – the assertion of Nefertari’s descent from Nefertiti.   Together, these two aspects of The Heretic Queen make the novel at once immensely readable and substantially problematic.

On the surface, creating the link between Nefertari and Nefertiti seems like a powerful way to build conflict into the story and allow the relationship between Nefertari and Ramesses to grow in measurable ways, as Nefertari becomes more and more essential to her husband’s diplomatic and personal needs.   She speaks virtually every language necessary, accompanies her husband on military campaigns without a second thought (at one point having just given birth to twin sons), is judicious in dealing with citizen petitioners, and has an authentic and passionate love for Ramesses.   As Ramesses and Nefertari try again and again to persuade the people to accept Nefertari, their own bond grows, as does Nefertari’s maturity.   Although she is still younger than 20 by the end of the novel, she is mother to twin sons, compatriot in war and diplomacy, and a trustworthy translator, showing quite a contrast from the besotted but somewhat innocent girl who began the novel with no sense of her place in the palace.

However, in focusing so intensely on Nefertari’s emergent power – and securing her place in history as the object of an apparently devoted Ramesses, if the statues and poems to her memory are any indication – the character of Ramesses is inadvertently weakened.   For example, consider the plotting around Nefertari and Ramesses:

“There are a dozen pretty faces Ramesses might have picked,” Woserit continued.   “He named Iset because his father suggested her, and my brother recommended her due to Henuttawy’s insistence.   But why is my sister so insistent?” she pressed.   “What does she hope to gain?”

I sensed that Woserit knew exactly what Henuttawy wanted and I suddenly felt overwhelmed.

“You have never thought of this?” Woserit demanded.   “This court is going to bury you, Nefertari, and you will join your family in anonymity if you don’t understand these politics.”

This passage occurs relatively early in the novel, offering up the possibility that Ramesses might have some awareness of all the machinations going on to manage his personal and royal lives, but he seems largely clueless.   Later in the novel this becomes more significant, as Nefertari overhears something about Seti’s death that demonstrates an incredibly high level of proficiency in outwitting Ramesses, making it very difficult for me to see in him the makings of a Pharaoh with enough power and stamina to outlive 12 sons and who-knows-how-many risks to his life.   Some of his obliviousness can be attributed to his relative youth, his impetuousness, and his focus on the safety of Egypt’s vast holdings, but not enough to warrant his complete cluelessness.   Unfortunately, when combined with the portrayal of his historically notorious fall into an enemy ambush during the Battle of Kadesh, an instance where even Nefertari admits that “[h]is pride had cost thousands of men,” Ramesses famous rashness seems more like callowness.   Especially when it turns out that the very clever Nefertari ends up discovering the deceit and creating an opportunity to save Ramesses life (and as a side note, I was confused about the timeline during this part of the story, because the battle seemed to occur in the book several years before it occurred in Egyptian history).

Because so much of the novel’s energy goes into creating the obstacles to Nefertari’s elevation to Chief Wife, most of which relate to Rahotep and Henuttawy’s scheming (and all of which, from what I can tell, are straight fiction), Nefertari’s character sometimes strains the limits of credulity.   Within the space of a year she seems to transform from naïve and unruly princess to sultry and focused Chief Wife-in-training, a shift that is undercut by the persistent youthfulness of her narrative voice.   For one of the things that struck me about both Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen is the YA voice of the storytelling, something that heightens the sense of trust the reader has in the narrative voice but also undermines the sophistication a character life Nefertari needs to outwit those who would undermine her.   And while her voice and demeanor do grow during the novel, the narrative tone of the novel does not ever shake the sense of youth with which Nefertari’s fictional presence is infused.

As I said earlier, the conflict created by the political machinations around Chief Wife create a very readable story, but one that begs a number of questions about who really had the power in Ramesses court.   In one sense it is always true that there is much more political complexity in a royal court than the official image portrays.   And it is always refreshing to read about the women who were just as capable and ambitious as their male counterparts.   However, when you have a figure who withstood as much as Ramesses, it is clear that he had some winning combination of smarts and ambition, and given the fact that Egyptian Pharaohs were seen as so close to the gods, I kept wondering how realistic it was that the people of Thebes would dare speak out – let alone actively protest, even riot – against Ramesses choice of Nefertari as wife or Chief Wife.   That they were so overtly displeased, almost storming the palace at one point, made me question – again – Ramesses’s effectiveness as supposedly the most powerful Egyptian at that moment in time, and it certainly made me question the fictionalization of Nefertari as Nefertiti’s niece.   And Ramesses’s persistent “don’t worry, we’ll convince them of your wonderfulness” attitude made him seem less devoted to Nefertari than singularly unprepared for the sophisticated demands of his position as Pharaoh.   Consequently, what the story engendered in tender devotion between the two it thwarted in offering the portrayal of a powerful couple.

Although I tend to appreciate as much historical accuracy as possible in historical fiction, I am not opposed to some tweaking, as long as the author has a good purpose and/or comes clean with the changes.   In this case, the changes are duly noted in an author’s note, and so I do not feel it would be fair to hold them against the book for their own sake.   But in terms of the purpose they serve in the novel, I did not feel the changes worked as they were intended.   Also, one note about the rivalry between Iset and Nefertari:   as much as I appreciated the fact that Iset was not portrayed as a one-dimensional villainess (unlike her power-hungry patroness), I am weary of novels that elevate one woman at the expense of another, finding the womano-a-womano hate to undermine the woman power often suggested in the winner of the contest.   I truly look forward to the day when the fictional portrayal one woman’s ascent to power is not conditioned on the degradation, suffering, disempowerment, or vanquishing of another woman, especially when the contest seems to straightforwardly good v. bad, regardless of how convenient or alluring the rivalry may seem.

As a sophomore effort, The Heretic Queen is more confident in its prose, better integrated in the details of Egyptian life, and a definite page-turner.   But the very things that create the novel’s central conflict also undermine the authority of its central couple, making those historical figures who saw themselves as larger than life not merely more human but less cogent than either history or fiction should ideally allow.   C+

~ Janet

This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

Dear Author

REVIEW: Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

Dear Ms. Moran:

book review I can trace my fascination with Ancient Egypt back to my middle school days when I saw a picture in my social studies textbook of an Egyptian battery. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the amazement I experienced as I devoured information on Egyptian methods of embalming and the building of the pyramids. I’m still a little obsessed with mummification and have spent hours upon hours in the Egyptian wing of the British Museum, which houses the largest collection of artifacts outside of Egypt. So it was with excitement and trepidation that I approached your ambitious debut novel, Nefertiti, not knowing quite what to expect in a novel about a historical figure whose known history is incomplete. For the most part, I enjoyed Nefertiti, feeling it was true to the knowledge we have of her life and time, and appreciative of the broad scope of the story.

Nefertiti is narrated by the title character’s younger (half) sister, Mutnodjmet (Mutny), and picks up just before the fifteen-year-old Nefertiti is married to Egypt’s new pharaoh, Amunhotep IV. Amunhotep’s brother Tuthmosis has just died after a chariot accident, although there is some quiet suspicion that his ambitious brother may have hastened his demise in order to take his place as pharaoh. Amunhotep the Younger has big plans for himself and for Egypt, plans that include changing the entire spiritual structure of the empire from polytheism to monotheism, with the minor deity Aten (the sun disk) at its center. Marriage to the beautiful and clever Nefertiti has been arranged by Queen Tiye, Amunhotep’s mother and Nefertiti’s aunt, in the hopes of exerting some control over the young Amunhotep. What no one counts on, however, is that Nefertiti is as ambitious and insecure in her own way as Amunhotep, and that she is as eager as he to enjoy unparalleled adoration from the people of Egypt. What follows after the marriage is an intense and often harrowing struggle for power among Egypt’s viziers, military leaders, and royalty, with the young pharaoh and his wife set on changing the course of Egyptian politics and worship.

The politics of Nefertiti are complex and dynamic, but can best be expressed by returning to the ambitions of Nefertiti and her husband, who insists on being called Akhenaten to honor Aten, especially their unarticulated but clear desire to be loved as gods themselves and remembered through eternity. The military prowess of Egypt becomes imperiled by Akhenaten’s insistence that the soldiers build his new capital in the middle of the desert, diplomacy is undermined by his disinterest in anything outside the scope of his immediate power, and the wealth of Egypt is endangered by his aggressive taxation of the old Amun-worshiping priests and his new custom of throwing gold into the streets to please the people. For all intents and purposes, Nefertiti’s father, the Vizier Ay, manages the day to day work of running the empire with Queen Tiye, while Nefertiti tries to merge her father’s will with her husband’s and her own. The more powerful and reckless Akhenaten becomes, the more peril the empire faces, whether it be from the invading Hittites, the priests who refuse to abandon the old gods, the people who are always planning some form of rebellion, or plague.

Within these larger issues are the family dynamics among Nefertiti and Mutny, Ay and Nefertiti, Kiya (Akhenaten’s first wife) and her ambitious father, Vizier Panahesi, and the rest of the novel’s characters. The world does, indeed, seem to revolve around Nefertiti and Akhenaten, both in Egypt and in the novel. Nefertiti is extremely emotionally dependent on Mutny, and even after her marriage expects Mutny to remain by her side, assuaging her heated jealousy toward Kiya, supporting her relationship with the arrogant and reckless Akhenaten, and generally serving as confidante and comfort. Mutny, a talented herbalist, cannot deny her sister, even when she is frustrated and hurt by her sister’s self-centered insensitivity. And as she grows older and falls in love with a man who shares her dream of settling down on a farm and living a quiet life, the tensions around Nefertiti become even more urgent because of Nefertiti’s overwhelming jealousy over anything and anyone who threatens her primary attachments to her husband, her sister, and later, to her children. We see very clearly through Mutny’s unvarnished narration how much alike Akhenaten and Nefertiti are in their ambition and jealousy, even as Nefertiti fights to keep people she trusts close to her and Akhenaten pushes potential allies away, afraid they will usurp his power. In that sense, having Mutnodjmet narrate the novel works well, allowing us to see through the initially innocent and somewhat worshipful eyes of the younger sister the machinations of her older sister, father, aunt, and brother-in-law.

At the same time, though, having Mutny serve as narrator calls attention to the artificiality of the narrative position, the fact that an audience of strangers are reading, in need to details beyond what would be required of someone listening casually to Mutny tell this story. How, for example, should background information be incorporated into the novel? Sometimes it appears in ways that seem very natural, like those descriptions of what the women are wearing, of how Nefertiti is being dressed and hennaed. But there are other points at which I can almost feel research being incorporated into the narrative. For example, when Nefertiti gives birth, the details are clearly included for the benefit of readers:

Nefertiti’s chair had been painted with the three goddesses of childbirth. Hathor, Nekhbet, and Tawaret held out their arms across the ebony throne. . .

The women eased her onto the padded seat with its hole in the middle for the child to make its descent into the world. . .

“We’ve already given her kheper-wer.” She had inserted the mixture of kheper-wer plant, honey, and milk into my sister to induce birth. . .

Ipu and Merit carried a dish of hot water to the birthing chair, placing it between my sister’s legs so that the steam would help ease the delivery.

As I was reading, I was also doing some web searching to ferret out some more details on Nefertiti’s world, and came across a site that made me wonder if it had served as background for this scene because of some similarities in phrasing. That I could so clearly discern the research here distanced me from the story at times, even as I appreciated the way the story jibed with what I could find on the real world history the novel attempts to capture. And while this may sound a bit contradictory, I would have loved to see a bibliography at the end of the book, simply because I am so interested in the time period and all the resources provided on the book’s Web page are Web references (what can I say – I’m a research snob who believes that actual books and journal articles still matter). In other words, there was enough historical richness in the novel to make me want to pursue the research, but I also wish it had been integrated a bit more smoothly and seamlessly into the novel.

As for Mutny’s reliability as a narrator, as I was reading the early chapters I was reminded of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, and the way her innocence offers the reader an apparently objective view of things beyond her understanding. That innocence is itself a narrative construction of course; we readers ultimately see what is presented to us by the author. But it can be a useful conceit, as I think it is here to some degree, especially when Mutny is learning about the ways of the Egyptian throne, just as we are, and we can benefit from the information she relates, as well as from her wonder, surprise, and disappointment. Where it falters for me is in the way Nefertiti’s intense jealousy of Mutny’s time and attention creates a vision of her as selfish, self-centered, and petty (downright ruthless on several occasions). That image is not as nuanced as I wanted it to be, especially when we understand later on in the novel how much Nefertiti has exerted her own will against the reckless selfishness of her husband. I do admire the way Nefertiti is portrayed as a woman with unparalleled power – eventually she is crowned pharaoh and co-regent in her own right, on par in power with her husband – and as a powerful woman who was not above certain baser feelings and impulses.

But while I came to understand how clever and independent Nefertiti was, how insistent she was on forging the best path for Egypt, I never could quite get past some of the more horrible things she did – or allowed others to do – to Mutny, something I might not have felt so much had I not grown attached to Mutny as a narrator and invested in her happiness. Ironically, I felt that the person who loved and was loyal to Nefertiti did not always help me understand and love her, too; in fact, sometimes Mutny’s love alienated me from Nefertiti in ways that made it difficult for me to appreciate her greatness as queen and pharaoh.

I also felt, after everything was said and done, that Nefertiti’s power was still subject to the will of the influential men in her life (namely her husband and father). At one point the royal artist tells Mutny that the pharaoh is not jealous of the people’s love of Nefertiti because “‘she guides their love to him, and they love him because she does.’” In one sense this is a reflection of Nefertiti’s genius, of her ability to turn an unstable situation to her advantage and avert disaster. But in another sense it is a reflection of the reality of how often Nefertiti’s will is exerted in service of the will of either her father or her husband. The lesson of Nefertiti’s life seems to be that “[p]ower is cruel,” and that lesson is played out both in what Nefertiti has to – or feels she has to – do, and in what ultimately happens to her. This is not exactly a critique of the novel as much as it is a question about the choice to have Mutny narrate the story. There were a number of times when I felt that other voices would provide certain insights into Nefertiti that would allow me to see her more comprehensively and appreciate the very difficult balancing act she was attempting, as well as the incredibly complex factors of her personality and her position. While Mutny certainly includes the comments and perspectives of others, I still felt a distinct limitation in the perspective of the novel’s portrait of its title character and a limiting of the nuances that were consistently hinted at or implied.

One decided strength of Mutny’s narration, however, is that we get to see her own story intertwined with Nefertiti’s, and the very different path of destiny she travels takes on an extra poignancy next to her sister’s fate. That Mutny remains loyal to the old gods provides another layer to the story, as well, along with her own relationships. While definitely not a traditional Romance, Nefertiti maintains a strong romantic thread through Mutny, whose life, despite all of her family’s ambition and political maneuverings, is possessed of a joy and sense of fulfillment her sister will never know or understand. As much as Mutny loves her sister, she does not envy her, and neither do we. Nefertiti may understand the nature of power, but Mutny understands the nature of love. That such a strong loyalty bonds them through so many difficulties provides a strong center to the novel, even thought it didn’t always feel balanced.

When I first finished Nefertiti, I gave it a preliminary grade of B-, based on the strengths of the somewhat epic scope and the weaknesses I felt were inherent in the narrative style and perspective. But the novel has stayed with me, and I have been ruminating over certain aspects of the story and the characters. Nefertiti’s last impulsive act, for example, is powerfully rendered and speaks to the mixed nature of her influence on Egypt. The scene in which Kiya gives birth to Tutankhamen offers a moment of humanity for a character that teetered on the edge of caricature in the novel. And Queen Tiye, who, along with Ay, put the events of the novel in motion, turns out to be a pleasant surprise and a welcome emissary between the political and personal realms of the novel. So upon reflection, I have to give the book a solid B, because its strengths, in the end, resonate more powerfully than its weaknesses. And I look forward to the upcoming release of Nefertiti‘s sequel, The Heretic Queen.

~Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.