REVIEW: Reflections in the Nile by J. Suzanne Frank
After entering an ancient chamber on an archaeological dig, Cloe Kingsley is sent back in time to the year 1452 B.C. to the Egyptian court of Hatshepsut and into the body of a corrupt priestess, where she is now forced to face her new environment and the challenges it holds. A first novel.
Dear Ms. Frank,
Back in 1997, you published Reflections in the Nile. That’s 23 years ago, and many things have changed since those days. However, in the romance world lately, there’s been a lot of re-evaluation of older books. In my opinion, this is perfectly valid, since even though many things have changed since the ‘90s, many things haven’t. We still struggle with racism, sexism and bigotry, and I believe it’s important to look at older works, evaluate or re-evaluate them, and see where we can improve. To quote a song from the Hairspray musical, we’ve come so far, but got so far to go.
So, with this in mind, I read Reflections in the Nile, a book I’ve always intended on reading. I wanted to like it. Unfortunately, and I’m really sad to report this, but I had a lot of issues with it.
You might ask, what issues did I have with it? Quite a few, as it turns out, since I discovered, there was much to unpack in this particular book. There’s the racism and the orientalism, the peculiar fanfiction-like aspects of it, and all the evangelical subtext. Like I said, there’s a lot to unpack.
Anyway, to make sense of it all, let me begin at the beginning.
Back in the ‘90s, I was a globe-trotting undergrad with an undying love for romance novels. No matter where I was in the world, I would find an internet connection and read the latest reviews at the Romance Reader. Meredith Moore was one of my favorite reviewers, and she wrote a glowing review of “Reflections in the Nile” that made me think I should read it too. After all, I loved time travel stories, romances, and ancient culture. Plus, I was a commercial artist, like the heroine in the book! What’s not to love?
Well. There was one thing in the review that alarmed me. This story set in ancient Egypt—according to Meredith— was all about Exodus. This was the last thing I wanted to see in a book with this setting, so I decided to give it a pass.
Anyway, I didn’t think about it for years, until I went into a used bookstore with some friends and I saw a used copy of Reflections on the shelf. While I reminisced about the Romance Reader, I picked up the copy and started thumbing through it.
And then I saw it. THE BIG SPOILER. My jaw dropped.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I told my friends in disbelief. I put it back, but I couldn’t forget what I had seen. I kept thinking about it, wondering why that was in the book, and could it possibly be justified in the context of the plot?
Finally, my friends asked me to read the book or shut up about it, so here’s my long-awaited review of the oddest book I’ve read for quite a while.
* * *
Reflections starts off with a first person POV chapter, introducing to us the heroine, one Chloe Kingsley, a red-haired, pasty-skinned Texan commercial artist with some military background, who’s currently visiting her Egyptologist sister Camille on vacation in Cairo. This is actually a banger of a chapter, in that it’s entertaining, fast-paced, and engrossing. There are a few uncomfortable bits here and there where Chloe thinks about how she’s only truly obsessed with her “roots,” aka her Southern heritage. This is especially uncomfortable given what happens next.
Anyway, the first person POV is not long for this world, as Chloe trespasses in the Luxor Temple and gets zapped back into ancient Egypt, to the time of Hatshepsut. And the book shifts to third person omniscient POV, which makes for a lot of distracting head-hopping.
But anyway, Chloe finds she’s not in her old red-haired pasty-skinned, Southern body: she’s in the body of a hot, curvy, brown lady named RaEmhetepet whose skin, we are informed, is like “café au lait.” However, this isn’t just any old body swap time travel romance. Chloe’s body has merged with RaEm, and she has brought her green eyes, her large feet, and last but not least, her hymen.
Yes, it seems that Chloe is a conservative baby-loving virgin with an ostensibly Protestant Christian background. On the other hand, RaEm, the ancient Egyptian POC priestess, is a promiscuous, ambitious woman who hates babies and loves S&M and hurting people. So… yeah. Let’s put a pin in that, shall we?
Anyway, Chloe is pretty unconcerned about RaEm’s fate. You’d think she’d think about her a little, given that she’s taken over her body like an alien parasite. At first I wondered if RaEm had gone, a la Get Out, into the Sunken Place, because sometimes RaEm’s psyche and personality intrudes into Chloe’s consciousness, and Chloe often refers to her as “the other.” But eventually we discover (on page 104 of the hardcover edition) that RaEm has actually gone forward to the future to swap places with Chloe. And we get this:
Her mind filled with hazy memories. She was watching herself with an Arab, their bodies laced together like ribbons, straining, seeking pleasure. Camille was in the doorway, shocked almost beyond recognition. The Arab man looked familiar as he covered himself. Chloe reclined naked and unashamed in the bed, her large brown eyes hostile and angry.
We only see RaEm one more time, and that’s to find out she died, and Chloe is stuck in the past. Let’s pour one out for RaEm: she got a raw deal. We hardly knew ye, RaEm.
Anyway, it turns out that RaEm is a super important priestess, and Chloe is sick from post time travel body swapping, so Hatshepsut sends her personal mage/doctor to tend to Chloe. And we are introduced to our hero, Cheftu! I assume he was named after the lead in the very good YA novel Mara, Daughter of the Nile (which I would rather have been reading).
At any rate, Cheftu is hot, bronzed, looks like Bernini’s David, and looks great in white kilts of linen. He’s also really nice and sensitive, which I think is why Meredith Moore of the Romance Reader liked this book so much, since the late ‘90s romance genre was filled with alpha assholes. I generally like beta heroes myself, but I had a lot of problems with Cheftu, which I will get to in a bit.
Anyway, Cheftu has a lot of bad feelings about RaEm, because she ditched him once. But—for some reason I couldn’t figure out—Chloe is mysteriously mute until page 119. I don’t know why. But there’s a lot of hanging out with Cheftu and Chloe crying after Cheftu is rude to her, along with a lot of ancient Egyptian medical remedies and descriptions of ancient décor. Chloe is not the most engaging heroine, because she doesn’t do anything. She just reacts. Not only that, but passive voice is rampant in this book.
But as dull as this is, it soon becomes infuriating, because the story segues into what is literally The Ten Commandments fanfic. We are introduced to Moses, and the plight of the Israelite slaves who are building all the monuments (which is not something that actually happened), and we launch into the whole plague storyline, superimposed on Hatshepsut’s reign. It becomes less like one of those lavish 1970s Egyptian-set romances written by Joyce Verrette, and it turns into something like an episode of that old Christian time travel Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible.
Anyway, we get bloody water, frogs, locusts, darkness, and finally the death of the firstborn. And as they’re dealing with all the plagues, Chloe and Cheftu become closer and closer. Chloe figures out how to talk again (yes… I still don’t get it), and they actually have conversations. Cheftu falls in love with Chloe because she’s changed. She’s no longer like the old RaEm, who was “poison.” He finds New RaEm/Chloe “pure” and loves her “child-like wonder,” and finds her “beautiful and fragile.” Yuck.
And THEN they have sex, and when he breaks her hymen during sex, THAT is when he becomes convinced that she’s not the actual RaEm. That she’s a different person. A person he can love. How can she possibly still be a virgin after she miscarried another man’s child, a child she desperately wanted? (Yeah, that’s a whole plot thread here. I can’t even begin to get into it.)
But… it gets worse. And how does it get worse, you ask? Well, we get to the part which I discovered in the used bookstore. The part that blew my mind.
We get to the revelation of Cheftu’s true identity.
In addition to the huge problems with racism, Orientalism, and othering, there’s also the weird fanfiction like aspects of this book. It’s not just the fact that this feels like Ten Commandments fanfiction, with Hatshepsut taking over the Yul Brynner role— Moses is also implicitly compared to Charlton Heston. Yet the fact that the ancient Egyptian hero is secretly
But last but not least, there is a huge problem with the evangelical subtext. How is that, you ask?
Well, after all the to-ing and fro-ing with the Israelites, “Cheftu” and Chloe depart from the Exodus narrative and end up meeting a wise old sage named Imhotep. After Chloe ponders that “the Bible was turning out to be a lot more accurate than she’d given it credit for,” we find out that Chloe’s true purpose in the past is to provide artistic PROOF (with her drawings of Moses etc.) for all those unbelieving people in the future that the Exodus did actually happen.
Chloe began pacing. “Aye, just illustrations. Everyone knows the stories,” she said, then stopped. “But they do not believe them!”
Cheftu looked up, frowning. “Do not believe the Bible?”
“Nay. Nor did I before”—she paused—“before this. Did you?”
“Aye. Why would the Jews use a fabricated story on which to base their entire existence as a people?” Cheftu asked. “It is humiliating enough for them to admit to being slaves, but then the desert? The many times they disobeyed and God punished? Why would someone falsify that?”
“Aye.” Imhotep chuckled. “You will never read of an Egyptian battle lost or a pharaoh falling short of his duties.”
“That is it!” Chloe cried. “There is no other validation of the existence of Israel, or the Passover, or even who the pharaoh was! Even my sister thinks it was Rameses the Great, if anyone at all. This is proof! Cold, hard facts written on paper from the right period.” She sat down, flipping quickly through the drawings. Several of Alemelek’s were Egyptian style—one actually telling the story of Ramoses! With a shaking hand she passed it to Cheftu and Imhotep, who leaned over it, reading quickly.
Chloe sat down. This was bloody unbelievable! (page 360)
After this, there’s a lot of discussion about the importance of believing in God. “Cheftu” extols about the might of God.
He turned, his eyes shining. “We have had the most, Chloe! We have climbed the pyramids, talked with pharaohs, seen the deliverance of God! He spared our lives, specifically, again and again and again! Think of it: we were not hit by the killing hail, we survived the desert, the soldiers, starvation, and thirst. If this is the price we pay, so be it!” (page 399)
A few pages later Chloe contemplates how her life has changed:
A year ago it had all been different. She’d been alone, looking forward to new things in life, and almost an agnostic. Now she stood with a man who was her soul, praying to a God she’d met, while soldiers swarmed through the city looking for them. (page 407)
Archaeologists have been searching for proof for Exodus for over a century at this point, and nothing has been found. It’s safe to say that it didn’t happen. Even as a lapsed Catholic, I still personally believe in God, and I’m not too concerned if the Exodus happened as described or not. I was really puzzled as to why the author was so intent on making us believe that it happened exactly as written in the Bible, when an ex-evangelical friend on Twitter pointed out to me that evangelicals are “really interested in ‘proving’ things that can’t be proven” and (in the opinion of my friend) “their standards are ridic bad. Like– they found a city that was mentioned in the Bible, so therefore the whole Bible must be true.”
I’m not even getting into the issue of how appropriative this book is of Jewish identity and culture. And just the very idea of a white woman taking over the body of a POC woman so she can become a white savior and play out an evangelical redemption narrative so the whole world can begin to believe the Bible is so many levels of awful.
In regards to the ending of this book, I’m not going to summarize the rest of the plot, because the plot continues to baffle and confuse, and at any rate it just ends on a strange cliffhanger. I’ve glanced at the end of the series, and it also seems to end in a bizarre and unsatisfactory way. Ms. Frank has suggested in the past that she will continue the series, and I’m not sure what to think of it.
My main takeaway is that I would love to see more books about ancient Bronze Age Egypt, or more books featuring
Anyway, praise Sekhmet! This book is over. I did enjoy the first chapter, but I’m sorry to say that it went downhill from there. With its deeply problematic ideology and racism, Reflections in the Nile gets an F.