Sunday, March 01, 2009

Egyptian Epic Lets You Go Only After You've Laughed, Cried and Just About Wet Your Pants in Suspense

I'll be honest: I tend to make snap decisions. Especially when it comes to books. By the

end of a novel's first chapter, I pretty much know whether I'm going to love it or hate it. Sure, books sometimes surprise me, but for the most part, the leading chapter tells me all I need to know. Occasionally, though, I don't need a whole chapter. Sometimes, all I need is a paragraph; sometimes, only a line. I know this is a little cliche, but I've been dying to say it: Nefertiti, you had me at hello. Michelle Moran's debut novel has everything I love in a book - solid writing, engaging characters, and a swift, interesting plot. Have I mentioned that I love this book?

Although the novel's spotlight shines on its title character, it is the narrator who steals the show. Mutnodjmet, Nefertiti's younger half-sister, tells the story with the quiet dignity that becomes her trademark. Through Mutny, we come to know her sister, one of the most infamous and iconic queens in history.

Though close, the sisters could not be more different - where Nefertiti is small and graceful, Mutny is tall and awkward; Nefertiti lives for the glamour and glitz of palace life, Mutny prefers the solitude of her gardens; Nefertiti is impulsive and passionate, Mutny is reserved and level-headed. Because of her calm demeanor, Mutny is the perfect foil for Nefertiti, who is poised to become the next queen of Egypt. As their father, Vizier Ay, plots to put Nefertiti on the throne, Mutny scrambles to save her peaceful life in the country. Eventually, she succumbs to the inevitable and becomes her sister's companion at court. When Nefertiti weds Amunhotep, an ambitious prince who's rumored to have murdered his brother to capture the crown, Ay begs Mutny to act as Nefertiti's conscience. For the good of the family, Mutny accepts her fate, even if it means forsaking her garden. Soon, she realizes her lofty position makes her little more than a spy for and servant to her demanding sister.

As much as Mutny resents her duties, she knows she must protect her family's power. Potential usurpers lurk around every corner. Nefertiti's goddess-like beauty dazzles princes and peasants alike, but Amunhotep's other wives, especially the lovely Kiya, see it only as a threat. If only Nefertiti could produce a male heir, the throne would be safe, but her womb seems doomed to release only princesses. As her paranoia grows, Nefertiti employs a full arsenal of schemes, plots and deadly acacia to cut down her rivals. Clearly, she will stop at nothing - no matter how vicious - to keep her gilded crown. When Mutny finally realizes just how far her sister and brother-in-law will go to preserve their rule, she flees in fear, vowing never to return to the palace.

Meanwhile, trouble is brewing outside the palace walls, where the people have finally grown weary of Amunhotep's fanaticism. Testaments to his vanity appear on every wall, where images of himself and his queen have replaced those of the Gods. He's commanded almost every soldier to build his city, leaving Egypt's borders open to intruders. Within his court, things are no less turbulent. Enemies abound even within Amunhotep's inner circle, making the Pharaoh mad with threats both real and imagined. While Ay begs Nefertiti to reign in her husband, the situation becomes desperate. Although she's determined not to become a slave to her family's ambition, Mutny finds herself back in the palace, frantic to protect her sister. It's a fight for life, power and a place in the history books. It's a battle that will be won - and lost.

Although Nefertiti contains all the elements of a satisfying novel - action, romance, humor, depth - it's the characters that make it most appealing. Each is a finely-crafted masterpiece, from the fearsome Amunhotep to his power-hungry viziers to his magnificent wife and her humble sister. We see their failings, their triumphs, their desperation; Moran makes the ancients human, sympathetic, real. Just as the Egyptians once were, we cannot help but be entranced by these figures and their turbulent histories. As Nefertiti's people did, we can only watch in open-mouthed amazement as the story unfolds and hold our breath until it comes to its heart-pounding conclusion. This is one of those books that swallows you whole, spitting you out only after you've laughed, cried and just about wet your pants in suspense. Loved, loved, loved it. That's all I can say.

Grade: A

(Although I didn't label Nefertiti a clean read, it has no profanity and no real sex scenes. References to sex are many, but vague and undetailed - intercourse is discussed mostly in relation to producing heirs. In my opinion, Nefertiti is suitable for church and other book clubs, that prefer G and PG-rated books.)

7 comments:

  1. I love your reviews! Your post title had me laughing out loud!:) I have had this on my TBR list for a few months. I think it looks really good! Great review!:)

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  2. Both this review and your author interview were entertaining and enlightening. I think I need to try a book by Michelle Moran.

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  3. I will add this to my next to read list! I love your blog and have it on my favorites list, I love your honest reviews!!!!

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  4. This is one of those books that I lend to my girlfriends with a "you have to read this book" sentance. So glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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  5. I loved this book, as well as the follow up, The Heretic Queen. I agree that it's the characters that draw you in.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  6. Sounds like a good read. Sometimes when I read your blog I don't read the whole thing because I get too much of the story. This does sound intriguing.

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