REVIEW: The Next Pharaoh by Sally Watson
General Horemheb is confident of becoming Pharaoh when Ay dies childless. Over-confident? He understands men. But not, alas, women, who are as unpredictable and disobedient as cats. The gods, possibly offended, challenge him with plots, pretenders, disappearances, assassins, magic, and willful women–not to mention an imperious kitten who rides his shoulder and whose goddess he had better not offend! Becoming the Next Pharaoh turns out more complicated than he had supposed!
Dear Ms. Watson,
I was very excited when I saw that there was not only one but two more books in “The Ivory Cat” series. And they’re available as ebooks! Based on the title and blurb, I had a feeling this book might be a little different from the first two and it was.
The action picks up a few years after that in “The Missing Queen.” General Horemheb is doing what he likes best, making snap inspections of various army outposts then yelling with exquisite profanity at his soldiers which lets them know just how much he likes them. Well, they like him, too. In fact the army was willing to put Horemheb on the double throne of Egypt when Tut died and advisor Ay snatched the throne while Horemheb was in the field. Not one to risk ma’at (cosmic order), Horemheb declined to attempt a coup. Now, near the border an urgent message is delivered to him that Pharaoh Ay is ill.
Cranky Ay has no heirs and hasn’t named one. Now closer, now farther from leaving Egypt to dwell with Osiris and the other dead Pharaohs, he and his horrid wife Tey glare and snarl at each other while they both devise plots. Horemheb (or Hori as his beloved Nojet calls him) isn’t taking chances and decides to head back to the royal city of Thebes. Before he leaves, he hands over a young foreign woman to the man who trained him (think Merlin to King Author) as he has no use for anyone who is deemed a possible mage.
Stopping in the now dying city that The Heretic had built and that is now slowly falling to ruin since it was abandoned by the Court, Hori finds his Nojet (younger sister to Nefertiti) along with two of the hidden royal princesses there. Nojet promises to journey to Thebes after the few remaining city inhabitants are relocated but in the meantime a feisty cat (granddaughter to Nefru who might or might not actually be Bastet) who has claimed Hori as her own joins him. Not a cat person (the horror!), Hori is not thrilled. Once he arrives in Thebes, Hori is dismayed to discover the unsettled Court and swirling political tensions surrounding cranky Ay and viperish Tey. Hori’s not the only one with his eye on the throne but everyone better watch their backs as there are some more ruthless about how they might get there.
The same things I liked about the first two books are also here. What is known about the era and the people is smoothly interwoven with what might have happened. The good, the bad, and (to modern sensibilities) the ugly of ancient Egypt is included. The Egyptian gods are real to these people and wiser ones try to maintain ma’at (balanced cosmic order) and keep in mind that when they die, their souls will be weighed against Ma’at’s divine feather with those failing the test being devoured by the horrific demon Ammit. Hori is one who tries to live his life with this in mind. Along with quietly taking over the duties of several of Ay’s viziers (the ones who are incompetent or crooked), Hori (who received a wonderful education) also takes time to wonder about the nature of Pharaonic divinity and where he truly wants to go in the afterlife.
In the meantime, he’s hip deep in political gamesmanship, plots, and politics. There is a lot of this and it tends to weigh down a section of the book before things kick into gear again. There is also a fair bit of telling instead of showing. But in this telling are some lovely scenes of how life might have been lived in ancient Egypt along with a lot of well integrated historical facts. So some good along with some draggy bits. I’m not the greatest fan of children in books and here we get two spoiled rotten little girls. They have been made this way for various reasons and by the end of the story, I have hope that their elders have realized the error of their ways and that the girls will be gently and kindly un-spoiled. But while they’re on page they are, at times, dreadful brats. Given the amount of time spent with one in particular, I was happy when she was not in a scene.
The relationship between Mutnodjmet (Nojet) and Horemheb is lovely. She had cultivated a twittery persona as a defense against the court when her sister was Great Royal Wife but underneath is a loving, kind, and very intelligent woman. Hori knows who she really is and treasures her for that. He can be short tempered and overbearing with most people but Nojet can smartly put him in his place. She also deeply cares about a bratty little girl who might not even be related to her.
I was thrilled that Sekhmet actually appears to play a role in this book and (based on the name) might also be in the next book. Don’t mess with Sekhmet – she’s the lion headed goddess. Yet, as much as I adore cats, there was perhaps just a teensy bit too much of them here. Yes, I’m shocked that I wrote that, too.
I appreciated the historical note at the end and agreed with the fact that Horemheb seemed to be one of the better pharaohs. Halfway through the book, I realized why certain characters seemed to vanish from the narrative but now that I know how these two books are intertwined, I hope to see “the other half” in the next one. B-