REVIEW: The Ivory Cat by Sally Watson
The Egyptian gods (if they exist) are the many which is the One: innumerable aspects of a single unity living in a time-space in which all time is now and all space is here, and everything can be true at once. Normally the gods don’t meddle in human affairs, asking only that Cosmic Order be preserved. But now and then-In a moment that was all moments, a simultaneity that in human terms would one day be known as circa 1333 BC, Bastet the cat-headed goddess (if she existed) looked with interest upon Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti and their children, upon a fishing boat bearing a numinous ivory cat, a fearful slave in Bubastis, an arrogant and unhappy princess in Mitanni, some venomous and ambitious plotters, a naive idealist or three, and a scatter of other human and feline players. She smiled a bland cosmic smile–and meddled.
Dear Ms. Watson,
Years ago, a friend of mine recommended one of your books which was, at that time, only available as an out of print and fairly expensive print copy. I put it on my wish list. But then I saw this book with a cat and instantly bought it. Now a – ahem – number of years later, I’m finally discovering how delightful it is. I would, however, like to know why there are only two digital sellers now as all the other books are widely available.
It doesn’t start out at all as I thought it would. Wait, we’re not in Egypt but in a harem with a foreign princess who has been despised all her life but is now finally being married off. Shastriel listens in amazement as she learns she’s to be married to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Alas, things aren’t quite what she expected or her parents told her to expect and she has little chance of actually doing what they want her to. What she is supposed to achieve – on her wedding night after she pleases her new husband – is talk him into sending Egyptian troops to help fend off the Hatti armies trying to conquer them.
What she is finally told – after a hellish journey with a snooty Egyptian Lord and another younger Egyptian who is supposed to tutor her but who fails to hide his low opinion of her – is that she will be merely another secondary wife, relegated to a distant wing of the palace, and unlikely to even see Pharaoh as Akenaten is besotted with his Chief Royal Wife Nerfertiti. Well, what will she do now? Collect a young slave girl and her own miw (Shastriel has never seen this kind of creature before) to go with her older and tough-as-nails former Cretan slave then try and survive among these strange people who wear little and are unsettled with the religious changes the country was forced to accept. But for how long?
As I got further into the story, I was more intrigued. Books with plots I can’t predict as I go along are my catnip (pun intended) and I had no idea where this one was going. I did do a little bit of research about Akenaten, his family, and the social/religious upheaval caused by his attempt to change the age old religion of his country. There is much that is known about this time and these people but enough that is disputed that a clever author can adroitly skip and skim through it to tell a fascinating story.
I like that no effort was made to sanitize practices that were common and accepted then such as royal intermarriage (while reading up on this I did get the heebies at some of the “closer marriages than I’d realized” took place – Hatsheput’s mother might have been her half sister??), slavery, sexual exploitation of slaves,and harems. It’s not pretty but that’s the way things were.
In reading comments about and looking at covers of other books set in ancient Egypt, a common complaint has been about whitewashing characters. There is none of that here. Characters – and their skin tones – are from all over the place and are all shades. No one thinks anything about it or less of any person based on that.
The story incorporates the fears racking Egyptians at the time about the stability of their country and their religious universe – would ma’at be maintained if their Pharaoh and his beloved wife disagreed about foreign policy and whether or not Egypt should be sending troops to defeat the foreign countries trying to invade and take over Egyptian vassal states? When they died now, would their souls still be judged against Maat’s feather of truth and where would their ba go from there?
I loved the fact that so much centers on female characters and they are shown as complex and three dimensional. At first I wasn’t enamored of Shastriel and her temper tantrums but it soon became clear that with no one at home or (initially) abroad paying her any attention other than scorn and contempt, she’d had no other way of asserting any agency except being unpleasant to get her way. Slave girl Beket lived a life just trying to stay unnoticed and like Pertta could morph into the Dumb Servant when it suited her. But they all grew and changed as their circumstances let them and ended having arranged their futures as they wanted them.
And then there are the cats, including one who might be more than just a descendant of Bastet and who dips her paw into human affairs when it suits her. Mighty Sobek (who earns his name) and the other beloved and pampered cats of the palace saunter in and out yet are there with claws out and hisses of outrage when justice requires it. Usually I’m leery of actual historical personages being included to quite such an extent in fiction books but here I feel it was done well, the book ending with a set up of the next one but also being able to stand alone. I would have liked to have seen a little bit more of the lives of the main characters in between the last chapter and the epilogue but overall, I enjoyed “The Ivory Cat” as well as the ivory cat in the story and look forward to continuing with the sequel. B+