I bought myself a copy of this book last year when I got “Catherine, Called Birdy.” I read “Birdy” but somehow “Mara” got set to the side and it drifted out of my mind. For years I’d heard it mentioned with enthusiasm by everyone who commented on it. With people looking for unusual historical settings and reading YA, I thought now would be a great time to give it a whirl.
It’s YA but Mara is not a sweet, gentle Disney Princess type of heroine. She’s not going to be helped by her pet friends Sobie the Crocodile and Anubie the Jackal. No, no. She’s smart, sarcastic and totally in favor of “Me, Myself and I.” She is her number one priority if only because, as an orphan slave, she has no one else who cares for her and if she doesn’t look out for No 1 then no one else will.
Who could blame her for grabbing it when she gets what she feels is the chance of a lifetime? A little spying, a little reporting of said spying, possibly having to use her sharp wits a time or two and she will have earned her freedom from slavery and a tidy amount of money to begin her new life. But just when she thinks she’s already got her problem solved and can count her golden deben, fate twists her dreams and gives her another schemer she has to answer to. Only this one is working for the other side. Mara has to use her intelligence and quick thinking to follow the bare bones instructions given to her by both of the men trying to pull her strings. Mara has her work cut out for her to keep her stories straight and all the players separate as she initially plays one side against the other with her death as a reward should she screw up.
The details of ancient Egypt come to life. I especially love the descriptions of the buildings of Thebes, the magnificent Golden palace of Pharaoh and the brilliant color washes of the sunrises and sunsets. Mara sees her homeland anew as she watches a foreigner come to know it. I hope Canaanite Princess Inanni gets to go home after all the drama ended. All of this isn’t just surface embellishment but is woven in the story. Sheftu goes on a heart stopping trip to the Dark River to gain the gold needed to fund the rebellion. It’s not terrifying merely because it’s dangerous to tomb rob but because for these people, doing this was the worst sin of their world. “Mara” conveys that these people truly believed in their gods and their universe and it’s done in a way that isn’t patronizing to their beliefs. Another favorite section of mine is the night scene watched over by Nuit – the Goddess of the Sky who causes stars to twinkle when she blinks.
The romance grows slowly and not always smoothly but the connection is shown from early on. Mara is a worldly wise 17 year old in an age when people would mature more quickly still kisses is as far as things go here. She’s been on her own for as long as she can remember with no one to care for her, so when she finally, reluctantly, starts to feel something for Lord Sheftu it seems natural that she has mixed emotions. Sheftu can slide from hot headed, rebel rouser through smooth talking young Lord to weary conspirator in the blink of an eye. Mara has to learn not only his moods but come to believe in the uprising he’s selling before the path of her future is all clear to her.
One thing that disappointed me was the view of Hatshepsut as nothing more than a greedy, scheming throne stealer more interested in the monuments to her own glory than her country. Hapshetsut is now seen as a good ruler who kept peace and expanded trade routes but young men are all about war and military might so it’s understandable how Sheftu and Thutmose would see Hatshepsut as they do. I wonder if the fact that the book was written in the early 1950s when women were being pushed back into traditional roles after WWII explains how Hapshetsut was shown.
To me the main issue of the book is not really to be a romance. It’s more about Mara discovering a cause more important than her own needs, discovering family and a connection to others. Learning that it’s not just all about “me.” She does get her romance and her man but she gains so much more than that. She gains a sense of place and a sense of her own worth. B