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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.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

18 Comments

  1. Kimber An
    Jun 13, 2008 @ 15:16:15

    NEFERTITI is my favorite Historical novel to date. I named it Enduring Romance Book of the Year 2007. I reviewed the ARC just before it came out in hardback a year ago.

    The thing to remember when reading NEFERTITI is that it is NOT Historical Romance. It is regular Historical Fiction. While Historical Romance is frequently softened up to appeal to contemporary readers, especially in regard to the role of women, regular Historical Fiction isn’t, or at least nowhere near as much. The fact is Nefertiti’s power did flow from her marriage to Akenaten. She would have been a minor noble or stuck in someone’s harem with little to no power at all if she had not married Akenaten. In fact, Ancient Egypt was the most advanced nation on Earth when it came to women’s rights, as far as I know. Nevertheless, even a queen’s power still came about because of a husband (Nefertiti may have ruled as pharoah after her husband’s death for a while) or a son or a minor brother. One of the things I really enjoyed about this novel was that Michelle never watered down Historical accuracy to appeal to contemporary readers. Rather, she appeals to contemporary readers by conveying universal human truths which stand the test of time, like the love for a sister through all adversity. If I did give grades at my book review site, NEFERTITI would have gotten an A+.

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  2. DS
    Jun 13, 2008 @ 15:54:48

    I’ve always found the entire 18th dynasty to be fascinating. Trouble is, of course, that I usually find historical fiction about the era to be questionable because I’ve developed my own theories over the last couple of decades of reading and I find myself arguing mentally with the author which does not make for a good reading experience. I hope that DNA testing will be able to unravel some of the relationships within that dynasty.

    And this has nothing to do with the book but I was severely disenchanted with the finding that Tutankhamum probably had a 32 inch chest, a 29 inch waist and 43 inch hips– based on measurements of his clothes found in the tomb.

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  3. Janet/Robin
    Jun 13, 2008 @ 21:11:48

    Kimber An: I’m glad you liked the book so much. And thanks for stressing the fact that this book is primarily historical fiction (although Moran clearly markets to Romance readers, as well). I mentioned that in the review, but it probably needs to be emphasized more strongly, especially because Nefertiti does not have a happy ending, lol, although Mutny’s story is quite romantic, IMO.

    My issue with Nefertiti’s characterization as a powerful woman comes in part from what you mention in your comment — that women in Egypt were, in fact, capable of becoming pharaohs, that they were capable of holding that kind of power. The reason that Nefertiti’s relationship to the most powerful men in her life was an issue for me had to do with the fact that with Mutny narrating we are getting a necessarily limited perspective. And sometimes that perspective does not, IMO, fully express the *complexity* of Nefertiti’s power. Often she comes across to me as petulant, selfish, cruel, petty, and completely self-absorbed, without — for me, at least — enough nuance to balance those aspects of her character with a more positive and meaningfully powerful view.

    DS: I’m not invested in any particular story around Nefertiti, although I was happy that Moran did, IMO, try to fit her book into both the known facts and the speculative theories around some of the characters. I find the question of Mutny’s relationship with Nefertiti to be the most interesting aspect of the historical speculation, especially since Mutny is both assumed to be Nefertiti’s sister and she is known to have married someone other than her husband in the novel. That was the one place where it felt like Moran made a decision to create a happy relationship (and a more explicit romantic strain to the novel) rather than something that, given the other character, would not have been so romantic. At 500 pages, the book clocked in at pretty dense, although I felt that some aspects could have been edited down and others expanded. Other readers likely feel differently about that, though.

    As for Tut, having been quite young when his tomb first made the rounds in America, I have an impression of the Boy King that is stubbornly contrary to history, and I doubt that impression will ever be changed, lol, no matter how illogical it is. I don’t, btw, know how accurate Moran’s rendering of Tut is (she has him born to Kiya, who dies right after his birth, and adopted by Mutny and her husband General Nakhtmin), although I understand how that works within the context of the narrative.

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  4. Jill Myles
    Jun 13, 2008 @ 21:39:57

    I’m really interested in reading this one.

    I’ve loved Mutnodjme ever since I read Pauline Gedge’s wonderful The Twelfth Transforming. She’s such an obscure figure in history (but with the right connections at that time) that she seems like the perfect narrator.

    I believe the general consensus now is that Tut was the son of Kiya (who shows up in records for a short period of time and then disappears, so it’s assumed she died abruptly) and the son of Akhenaten or Smenkhare. So the research sounds correct from my (admittedly poor) knowledge of the subject.

    I admit I have a general distaste for Nefertiti as a historical figure, but Mutnodjme will make me pick this one up…and I’m really looking forward to the Nefertari book later this year.

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  5. Jayne
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 04:23:31

    As for Tut, having been quite young when his tomb first made the rounds in America, I have an impression of the Boy King that is stubbornly contrary to history, and I doubt that impression will ever be changed,

    Am I the only one who immediately thought of Steve Martin’s song on SNL?

    King Tut (King Tut)
    Now when he was a young man,
    He never thought he'd see
    People stand in line to see the boy king.

    (King Tut) How'd you get so funky?
    (funky Tut) Did you do the monkey?
    Born in Arizona,
    Moved to Babylonia (king Tut).

    (king Tut) Now, if I'd known
    they'd line up just to see him,
    I'd taken all my money
    And bought me a museum. (king Tut)

    Buried with a donkey (funky Tut)
    He's my favorite honkey!
    Born in Arizona,
    Moved to Babylonia (king Tut)

    (Tut, Tut) Dancin' by the Nile, (Disco Tut, Tut)
    The ladies love his style, (boss Tut, Tut)
    Rockin' for a mile (rockin' Tut, Tut)
    He ate a crocodile.

    He gave his life for tourism.
    Golden idol!
    He's an Egyptian.

    Now, when I die,
    now don't think I'm a nut,
    don't want no fancy funeral,
    Just one like ole king Tut. (king Tut)

    He coulda won a Grammy, (king Tut)
    Buried in his Jammies, (king Tut)
    Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia,
    He was born in Arizona, got a condo made of stone-a,
    King Tut!

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  6. Robin
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 13:01:11

    I've loved Mutnodjme ever since I read Pauline Gedge's wonderful The Twelfth Transforming. She's such an obscure figure in history (but with the right connections at that time) that she seems like the perfect narrator.

    I haven’t read Gedge’s book, but I’m very interested now in doing so. I’d be interested in hearing your opinion on Nefertiti after you’ve read it, since you have more acquaintance with Mutnodjmet than I do. I don’t know if it was her position that made her narration feel unbalanced to me, or just the way Moran draws the characterizations. So much depends on the interpretive work of the author, after all.

    Am I the only one who immediately thought of Steve Martin's song on SNL?

    NO! I have been mentally hearing that song for days now, lol, especially this part:

    (King Tut) How'd you get so funky?
    (funky Tut) Did you do the monkey?
    Born in Arizona,
    Moved to Babylonia (king Tut).

    I can even see Martin on stage in his white suit with that headdress. Hysterical.

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  7. Popin
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 17:03:53

    I didn’t really like this book as much as I wanted to. It is historical fiction, so I didn’t mind the historical inaccuracies, but I was really confused about Mutny’s age. On one page she says she’s 14, then the next she says she’s 13. Overall though, it reminded me of The Other Boleyn girl.

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  8. Michelle Moran
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 17:57:49

    Hi Janet,

    Thank you so much for taking the time to review Nefertiti (and hi Kimber… nice to see you here!). You make some great points about the pros and cons of not choosing Nefertiti to tell the story. Ultimately, I decided to write the novel from perspective of Nefertiti's younger sister, Mutny, because the historical Nefertiti didn’t seem as though she would have been a trustworthy narrator. Nefertiti was incredibly ambitious, and probably would not have had trouble lying or flattering her way to power. The historical Mutny, by contrast, didn't seem to possess Nefertiti's ambition, and so I felt that she made a much more credible narrator. With two such startlingly different sisters, however, there was bound to be conflict, and from that conflict comes what I hope is a good tale. You are also absolutely right when you wrote:

    Mutny is both assumed to be Nefertiti's sister and she is known to have married someone other than her husband in the novel. That was the one place where it felt like Moran made a decision to create a happy relationship (and a more explicit romantic strain to the novel) rather than something that, given the other character, would not have been so romantic.

    I explain more about this decision on the QA page of my website. And I really did want a happy ending for Mutny, or if not a happy ending, at least a happy start. The man she goes on to marry forced her into marriage much later in her life (a subject I deal with in the second book), and given the timeline, it seemed not only plausible, but likely to me, that she would have had a previous relationship before this unhappy union.

    And to Poppin: Yes, the age discrepancy appears in the hardcover but not the paperback. It was a frustrating result of cuts and rearrangements to the timeline of the novel. As Janet points out, the book is pretty dense at 500 pages, and publishers don’t like to go much longer than that for debut authors (although some will take the chance), so I had to cut about a hundred pages from the book. It’s pretty mortifying when something so obvious slips by and ends up in the published version, but I’ve gone to great lengths to make sure there’s no mistakes like that in The Heretic Queen!

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  9. Michelle Moran
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 19:41:45

    Ooops, make that Popin with one “p”. I went to go edit it after I reread the post and my five minutes ran out!

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  10. Jill Myles
    Jun 14, 2008 @ 20:34:46

    Gedge writes some terrific historical fiction, but she doesn’t shy away from the incest, which could make for a tricky read.

    I’ll definitely pick this one up and I’ll let you know what I think.

    (And Popin, if it’s like The Other Boleyn Girl, I’m sold. Lol. I loved that book.)

    I’m honestly really excited about The Heretic Queen. Nefertari is rarely written about. Michelle, do you plan on doing more books on Egyptian women after these two?

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  11. Michelle Moran
    Jun 15, 2008 @ 13:56:58

    Michelle, do you plan on doing more books on Egyptian women after these two?

    Hi Jill! Actually, the answer is yes and no. My third novel, which will be coming out in the summer of 2009, is Cleopatra’s Daughter (which I just finished two days ago – woo hoo!!!). Although Kleopatra Selene was a princess of Egypt, her mother, the famous Kleopatra VII, was Greek. Selene had an amazing life story. After her mother committed suicide, she and her twin brother Alexander were taken from Egypt and paraded through the streets of Rome in Augustus’s military Triumph. The life she led after that is pretty jaw dropping (I explain a little about it here).

    Aside from Nefertari (who had a pretty unbelievable life herself) Selene’s story has been my favorite to both research and write!

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  12. Popin
    Jun 15, 2008 @ 14:46:16

    And to Poppin: Yes, the age discrepancy appears in the hardcover but not the paperback. It was a frustrating result of cuts and rearrangements to the timeline of the novel. As Janet points out, the book is pretty dense at 500 pages, and publishers don't like to go much longer than that for debut authors (although some will take the chance), so I had to cut about a hundred pages from the book. It's pretty mortifying when something so obvious slips by and ends up in the published version, but I've gone to great lengths to make sure there's no mistakes like that in The Heretic Queen!

    That sucks that they did that. It took me out of the book a few times and it was really frustrating. I can’t even imagine how you must have felt. Thanks for clearing that up for me! I think I’ll read your paperbacks from now on. :)

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  13. Robin
    Jun 15, 2008 @ 16:20:11

    I had an ebook version of Nefertiti, and I also found the error with Mutny’s age. I had to go back and forth for a minute to figure out the timeline. The only reason it was an issue for me was because so much was made of Mutny and Nefertiti’s age in the novel, and because the chapters progress seasonally, so it was important to keep track of how old the two young women were at any given time.

    I doubt the incest in Gedge’s book will bother me, since, well, how can you avoid it?

    I also wanted to point out that Michelle Moran is a graduate of Pomona College and Claremont Graduate University, a very small six-institution system that is known for another historical fiction author of note, Judith Merkle Riley (she teaches at one of my alma maters, Claremont McKenna College). I wonder if there are other historical fiction authors who have come out of the Claremont Colleges, considering how tiny they are, lol.

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  14. Michelle Moran
    Jun 15, 2008 @ 16:31:31

    Wow, I didn’t know that, Robin! Yes, Pomona is a very small college. Only a few thousand students attend, and when I went there, nearly everyone had their own dorm rooms with walk-in closets. Was it the same at Claremont? If so, we were seriously spoiled, as I discovered (much to my dismay) in grad school!

    Nice to meet another Claremont Colleges alum! I do know Richard Preston also went to Pomona, and if there’s anyone on this forum who would like a bit of a departure from romance, his nonfiction books The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer will keep you up ALL night.

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  15. Janine
    Jun 16, 2008 @ 00:29:35

    I read The Hot Zone back in the nineties and it was truly terrifying as well as a page-turner.

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  16. Moth
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 10:55:39

    For anyone looking for more ancient Egyptian novels with strong romances there’s:

    Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

    I highly, highly recommend it. It follows Mara, a young Egyptian girl who takes up a dangerous job as a double spy between two different masters: Queen Hatshepsut and the younger brother she’s trying to control, Thutmose.

    It’s an older book and it’s slanted more towards young adult, but it’s really wonderful. :)

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  17. vasudha bachchan
    Feb 10, 2010 @ 07:50:19

    i really really want to read these 3 books…Michelle Moran…are u writing more? i write stories myself and i am quite interested in ancient egypt…i would love 2 write stories about it…i’ve already written two novels and am writing the 3rd, 4th, and 5th…

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  18. vasudha bachchan
    Feb 10, 2010 @ 08:19:06

    and i am buying these books this year after my final exams…i have read the excerpts though n they r fantabulous!!! i am sure that the books will be awesome…three cheers for Michelle Moran!

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