on 14 October 2010
The combination of heretical scandal as well as disastrous rulership is what crucially provides our fascination with Akhenaten's motivations, and the desire to find out what those motivations were is what drives the main plot of the book. We do care about what happens to Tiye and the few other characters who try to cling to sanity, and whether or not they'll survive under Akhenaten's reign, but with each event we hope to observe Akhenaten's actions and make some kind of sense of just what his "deal" is. Naturally, in her faithfully historical style, Gedge's storyline tries to follow what we know about actual historical events, so as such it cannot truly be said to have an engineered arc to it, but has a more natural, realistic turn to it, which of course naturally incorporates such character growth and arcs in its storyline. Despite harbouring such an obviously disturbed family, the plot is believable, and there is room for plot twists that are not entirely obvious despite possessing my prior knowledge of the historical background.
What is most striking, I noticed by the time I reached the "aftermath" phase of the novel, is the all-pervading sense of corruption. I completely expected, with the death of the disturbed Akhenaten, that the focus would turn to the dawn of hope once more in Egypt, but the book takes an entirely different turn. Akhenaten's dark perversions and heresy, perpetrated most deeply upon his own family, feel like they have not only traumatised his family, but infected them with his corruption. That continuing sense of the taint that pervaded his family and country even after Akhenaten's death really sends the message that not only was Akhenaten disastrous as a king, he left a legacy that ran deep, and there was not in fact an instant return to hope and happier times. I really appreciated this dark turn from Gedge, since most historical novels focusing on his reign portray an instant return to the good old days the second Tutankhamun takes the throne.
As always in Gedge's works the characters are well-thought out, and carry real depth, each with their own personality and history, and yet with each of them you can still clearly understand how and why they make the decisions that they do. From what little evidence surviving of the historical figures, Gedge creates thoroughly plausible characters who may well be very close to the actual people. The language Gedge uses in all her works is complex and sophisticated, but applied carefully, and the book is never unnecessarily crammed with overly pompous language. In addition, everything is explained very well, although the huge and complex city of Akhetaten does take a little while to get your head round. The quality of writing displays a wide-ranging knowledge of the language and vocabulary, the description of the environment and people is varied and uses vivid imagery, but Gedge does not dwell on it so long that the description eclipses the action. Each character shifts and grows throughout the story depending on what happens to them, and each reacts to events in their own unique way. There is plenty of focus on shifting relationships between the characters, and the implications these shifts have for both the other characters and Egypt herself.
Tiye is undoubtedly the most important character of the whole book, since we view events through her eyes for almost the entire novel. I definitely enjoyed seeing events through Tiye's eyes, partly because the famously shrewd and stalwart queen of Amunhotep III does become somewhat forgotten during Akhenaten's reign and yet it must have been fascinating to observe how such a strong character dealt with such an extraordinary period in Egypt's history. Akhenaten himself is probably the most fascinating character in this book, although not the most likable by far. What fascinates is a desire to understand what motivated such a man whose policies almost brought Egypt to civil revolution, foreign subjugation, and crushing poverty. What is very clear about this Akhenaten, is that there is something disturbed and damaged in his mind, potentially inherited from his father (there are minor hints of the same disturbance in Amunhotep, but not nearly as exaggerated), something which may not be entirely obvious at the start of the story, but more and more becomes apparent as his disturbance degrades and accelerates. Akhenaten latches on to the sun worship with the fanatical fervency of the genuine zealot, and at all times it is clear that he truly believes. Whilst we have no way of knowing whether or not mental disturbance or a medical condition was the true reason for the historical Akhenaten's behaviour, I thought it was presented in a very plausible way, explaining his actions and just how and why he could have plunged Egypt so thoroughly into ruin seemingly without deep awareness or remorse of the situation he was getting Egypt into.
Akhenaten is just about the last person you feel sympathy with in this book, and like the characters around him, as I read I could only observe with horror as his madness led where it did and his perversions and disturbances became ever darker and deeper. Yet at the same time, it is not really possible to hate the character, since you knew that the horrors he perpetrates in the book are down to a mental disorder that has a grip on him he's not even aware of, and that is totally out of his control. In many ways, Akhenaten's affliction and the horrors it makes him commit, make him the most tragic figure of the entire piece. Nefertiti's character has also historically been one of fascination and mystery. If Akhenaten's actions can be explained by some sort of severe mental unbalance, which is plausible, how do we explain Nefertiti's? In a way, Nefertiti is a more disturbing character in this novel than Akhenaten, since her actions plunging her own homeland into poverty and almost total ruin are conscious, not the product of mental disturbance. Proclaimed by some as the most beautiful face in the ancient world, in this novel the mask of beauty hides a woman who is selfish, greedy, power-hungry, capricious, and altogether ugly in personality. This is another refreshing portrayal, as far too many historical novels about Nefertiti default to the unquestioned modern media view that beautiful on the outside equals beautiful on the inside (how many times have we seen good looking people cast in the roles of good guys and not so for the bad guys of film and tv?). Too often Nefertiti is excused in fiction from the events of Akhenaten's reign with the idea that she only went along with it to try and influence him to better paths (if so then she certainly never succeeded, historically!), and a darker Nefertiti does seem altogether more probable.
Details such as Mutnodjme's well attested dwarf attendants, and the lock of Tiye's hair possessed by Tutankhamun, are wonderfully accurate historical strands picked out by Gedge and woven into the novel. Finally, I probably ought to mention, for those prospective readers who might want to know about such things, that Gedge chooses to write into the book several disturbing relationships between Akhenaten and various family members. These relationships are not described in explicit detail, but they are there. For me it wasn't a problem because it made sense within the premise of Akhenaten being mentally disturbed, and it was never gratuitous or there for the sake of being shocking. For others however, you may want to give it a bit of thought on this front, as younger readers may find it disturbing. Ultimately this is a very well written book with some darker themes, tightly researched for the time it was written (early 80's; some later discoveries have changed our perspectives on this unique royal family), vibrant, vivid, and utterly gripping.