A few days before writing this review, I happened to see two documentaries about ancient Egypt. And, since I was in a bit of an “ancient Egypt” kind of mood afterwards, I remembered that I had a second-hand copy of Michelle Moran’s 2007 novel “Nefertiti” that a relative had given me several years ago.
So, let’s take a look at “Nefertiti”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
“Nefertiti” is a historical novel about the reign of Nefertiti, queen and Pharaoh of Egypt. The story begins with a brief third-person description of how one of the elder pharaoh’s sons, Tuthmosis, dies in suspicious circumstances. Then, the novel is narrated by Nefertiti’s younger sister Mutnodjemet, beginning in Thebes when the sisters are teenagers and their influential father, Vizier Ay, manages to arrange a marriage between Nefertiti and the elder pharaoh’s only surviving son Amunhotep.
When Amunhotep is granted control of lower Egypt, he begins to order sweeping religious changes in addition to ordering the construction of a new city in the desert. Of course, Vizier Ay hopes that Nefertiti can influence the pharaoh to keep Egypt’s ancient religious traditions. However, the lure of power is strong and Nefertiti is eager to grab it…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a brilliantly epic, dramatic and atmospheric historical saga – although it is rather slow to start.
In essence, if you can get through the first hundred pages or so, then you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping story that reminded me of both HBO’s excellent “Rome” TV series (in terms of atmosphere, grandeur and style) and “Game Of Thrones” (in terms of ruthless political intrigue, drama, tyrannical rulers etc..). This novel is just as good, if not better, than these TV shows – but only once you’ve got past about the first hundred pages or so. So, stick with this book.
In terms of the historical elements of this novel – I am very glad that I watched a couple of documentaries before I read it. Whilst the story can of course be enjoyed as a simple drama/political thriller/romance/ historical saga without any prior knowledge, having a little bit of general background knowledge will help you to spot some of the novel’s moments of dramatic irony and/or historical accuracy (eg: there’s a throwaway line about Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus late in the book that is accurate to the archaeological findings in one of the documentaries I saw).
But, even if you know enough about the history to know how the story’s main events will turn out, most of the novel is still intriguingly gripping because of all of the various sub-plots and moments of drama. Because the novel is written from the perspective of Nefertiti’s sister, she is able to be involved in events, plots and romances that aren’t part of the well-known historical narrative. Likewise, some of the novel’s political schemes, plots and power plays are also rather unpredictable too. As such, the story can still be nail-bitingly suspenseful even if you know some of the history.
Plus, looking on Wikipedia, there does seem to be some deliberate artistic licence (eg: with regard to Horemheb and Mutnodjemet, with regard to how Nefertiti dies etc…). Although this isn’t historically accurate, it helps to add some unpredictability and drama to the story. However, when doing a little bit of background reading whilst writing this review, I suddenly noticed that two of the novel’s background characters (Ay and Horemheb) later became pharaohs, which is kind of cool.
In addition to this, the story is a grimly compelling drama about the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of power. Since, through Mutnodjemet’s eyes, we get to watch how Nefertiti goes from being a loving sister into a cold-hearted, selfish and imperious ruler.
In addition to this, the Pharaoh Amunhotep/Akhenaten is also a brilliantly chilling character too – he’s a religious fanatic, who is drunk with power and scarily incompetent too (eg: he orders the army to build him a new city, whilst some of Egypt’s outer territories are being invaded by Hittites etc..). So, this novel is a fascinatingly chilling glimpse into the nature of evil and tyranny too.
Yet, the novel’s emotional tone is surprisingly balanced. Unlike, say, “Game of Thrones”, this isn’t an unrelentingly bleak story. Yes, there are certainly grim, shocking, poignant, chilling, bleak and suspenseful moments but these are also balanced out with more joyous, heartwarming and peaceful moments. This novel is a wonderfully powerful emotional rollercoaster. So, if you want something that is a little bit like “Game Of Thrones”, but with a little bit less of a bleak tone to it, then you’ll enjoy this novel 🙂
The religious politics of ancient Egypt are also a really interesting element of this novel too. Basically, the novel covers the relatively brief period of history where Amunhotep/Akhenaten changed the state religion from the religion of Amun (eg: the traditional deities like Horus, Osiris, Anubis, Amun-Ra etc...) to the worship of a single sun god called Aten.
In addition to showing some of the reasons why the Pharaoh did this – eg: a mixture of religious fanaticism and a way to take power away from the influential priests of Amun – Moran also adds a bit of extra drama and suspense to the story by showing many of the characters still secretly worshipping the old gods in a similar way to how Americans drank in speakeasies etc… during prohibition.
The characters in this book are absolutely brilliant and the decision to narrate the story from the perspective of Nefertiti’s younger sister – who just wants to tend a garden and start a family, rather than get involved in politics – is a surprisingly good one. Not only is she a really likeable character, but her humanity is also brilliantly contrasted with many of the more sociopathic and power-hungry characters that she encounters. Seriously, I really loved the characters and characterisation in this novel 🙂
In terms of the writing and first-person narration, it’s fairly good too. The novel is written in a fairly readable style which is descriptive enough to evoke the grandeur and traditions of ancient Egypt whilst still being modern and matter-of-fact enough to be able to be read at a reasonable pace. The novel also uses a few Egyptian words to add flavour to the story, but the meaning is always obvious from the context – so, it never gets confusing.
In terms of the length and pacing, it’s reasonably ok. Although, as I mentioned, the novel is a bit slow to start, the final three-quarters of the book move at a reasonably decent pace. Whilst this isn’t exactly an ultra-fast paced thriller, the narration moves at a good pace and there are enough moments of drama to keep you gripped throughout most of the book. And, at about 420 pages or so, this novel is a little bit on the long side – but still just about compact enough not to feel bloated.
All in all, this is an absolutely brilliant historical novel. Yes, the first hundred pages or so are a bit of a slog but, once you get past those, you’ll be rewarded with a wonderfully gripping tale of power, intrigue, family and politics. I absolutely loved the atmosphere and characters in this novel too. As I mentioned earlier, if you like TV shows like “Rome” and “Game Of Thrones”, then you’ll probably enjoy this book 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.