Nefertiti is the daughter of a family that's been providing the royal family with brides for generations and now it is her turn to become queen. The Queen Mother hopes that she is strong enough to reign in and control her rebellious and unstable son but the young girl has her own agenda and when she is crowned she becomes unstoppable.
Growing up I liked to look at a metal etching of Nefertiti hanging on the wall of my grandparents' apartment. I never really understood why my grandparents, who didn't appear to be interested in antiquity at all, had that etching but the woman depicted in it was beautiful with her strong profile and an unusual headdress and I just accepted her as a permanent fixture of the living room. A few months ago browsing in a used book shop I saw this book and was immediately transported to my grandparents' living room and picked it up without hesitation. It sat on the shelf since then, waiting its turn, until I finally read it.
The book intrigued me as much as the etching did with its promises of an unusual culture and religion and the people who did something worthy of being immortalized in art. Ms. Moran did a wonderful job of setting the scene and making the story and the characters authentic. From the very first pages Mutnodjmet, the narrator and the sister of Nefertiti, plunges us into that time with references to gods and an account of the latest horrific gossip. It was like listening to a foreigner talk about their land and their culture, a foreigner who just happened to be privy the inner workings of the court of the pharaoh at the time of never before seen change. This very informal tone continued throughout the book and made it an easy and relaxing read. There weren't any explanations of the words and concepts the reader isn't readily familiar with and that kept the narrative from feeling forced. Instead we got a glossary at the end of the book and a genealogical map of the royal family that answered any and all questions that arose.
I really enjoyed the seamless blend between fiction and history in this novel. It was such a treat to realize that one of the scenes was about the creation of the legendary bust of Nefertiti that my grandparents' etching is based on. There are a lot of questions about the real Nefertiti and her Pharaoh mainly because the archaeologists haven't been able to find their tombs, or at least definitely identify them as theirs and Ms. Moran gives a plausible explanation of why that is and of why there are hardly any images of the Pharaoh's first wife, Kiya. I can tell that she did a lot of research for this book because her take on the people and the events of the time is very believable.
I've seen comparisons of Nefertiti to Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl and there are plenty of similarities between the stories to support this claim. For example both stories are told by unambitious sisters of incredibly ambitious women who become queens and play crucial roles in the upending of entire countries' way of life. There are some differences though that make these novels dissimilar. For instance, Nefertiti was meant to marry the young pharaoh and Mutny was always just her sister and supporter, not a romantic rival and she was never used by her family the way Mary was. There was also a lot more tragedy in Mutny's life and I sympathized more with her because of it.
The character cast in this book is very multifaceted. There are contrasts of Mutny and Nefertiti and Nefertiti and Kiya, of the two viziers - fathers of the Pharaoh's wives, the Pharaoh himself and his dead brother who was very much of a presence throughout the novel, the two generals opposing the Pharaoh. There are also very warm relationships between Mutny and her servant who becomes her friend and Mutny and the dowager queen Tiye. We don't get much development of Mutny's mother but it's obvious that she loves both her daughters and is a source of comfort to them.
I didn't much like Nefertiti because a lot of her actions were very selfish and she appeared to have little or no regard for anyone or anything but herself and her desires but in a way I also admired her for her strength and daring in setting herself apart from any queen who came before her and her patience and determination in working to achieve her dreams. In the end we do learn about some of her redeeming qualities and her character becomes more multi-dimensional but Mutny is a lot more sympathetic because of how honorable and unspoiled she is by her status and living in riches. I chuckled when I read the scene where a chariot driver wanted to give her a ride to the other end of town because she was nobility and she told him off saying that she had two perfectly good legs and could walk.
A lot happens during the course of this book, it spans several decades, but it flows very naturally. Never does it become contrived or forced and that made it a very enjoyable read. I look forward to reading Michelle Moran's other books and luckily on the same trip to the book store I picked up The Heretic Queen so that will be easy to arrange.