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Sekhmet: “One who is powerful.”
Sekhmet (Image: Wikipedia)
To the ancient Egyptians, Sekhmet was a warrior goddess with the head of a lion. As The Sekhmet Bed opens, Ahmose, the thirteen-year old younger daughter of the just-deceased Pharaoh, has little in common with a lioness. Her older sister has been groomed all her life to be a Great Royal Wife, while Ahmose prefers to focus on the spiritual. When their father dies without a male heir, Thutmose, one of his trusted generals, is named King. It seems straightforward enough that Thutmose, who is of humble origins, would be married to a king’s daughter to give his reign legitimacy. To the surprise of both sisters, it is Ahmose who is named Great Royal Wife to Thutmose while her older sister becomes his second wife. (There’s no way that could cause any trouble.) History tell us that Thutmose and Ahmose will eventually be the parents of Hatshepsut, one of the few women to rule Egypt, but naive Ahmose has a long way to go before that happens.
If historical fiction is most successful, as Hilary Mantel has said, by working with the “gaps” in history, then stories about the ancient world offer a lot of opportunities to fill in the blanks.
Hatshepsut is a relatively well-known figure in ancient Egyptian history, but 3,500 years later, there is a great deal we don’t know about her and her family. When we aren’t sure what was actual, the writer has to work with what is plausible. The motivations and decisions of the characters here are credible, offering one possibility for how events unfolded.
Where this novel really succeeds, though, is in the writing. Ironside (pen name of writer Libbie Hawker) writes with lyricism without falling into the trap of purple prose. The sense of the setting, of heat and flies and dust, of kohl and wigs and gold, of an unnaturally bright sun, suffuses the writing rather than showing up in one or two descriptive passages. The time and place here are not just a stage set with anachronistic characters dropped in.
There are occasional missteps - the “pidgin Egyptian” dialect spoken by one non-Egyptian character was jarring and didn’t seem historically and linguistically authentic. To be fair, though, I’m not sure how exactly someone would speak ancient-Egyptian-as-foreign-language.
Overall, there is a coherent vision of the interplay of setting, dialogue, story, and character. We can’t know exactly how these people thought and spoke. (As Ironside points out in the historical note at the end, the Egyptians generally did not use vowel sounds in their writing, so it’s hard even to guess what the language really sounded like.) Our images of the ancient Egyptians come primarily from the highly stylized portrayals on their tombs, defining them as obsessed with the afterlife because we know more about their elaborate burial rituals than anything else. Ironside succeeds in balancing that popular idea of pyramids and mummies and walking like an Egyptian with believable history lived by real humans.
Ahmose, Thutmose, and daughter (Image: Wikipedia)
A copy of this book for review was provided by the author.