“Seeing a Large Cat” Re-Read

(I’m going to tell you who the murderer is. If you don’t already know, or don’t want to know, don’t keep reading.)

"Seeing a Large Cat" by Elizabeth Peters

“Seeing a Large Cat” by Elizabeth Peters

Book 9 of the Amelia Peabody series, Seeing a Large Cat introduces several new stylistic and narrative choices. For one thing, this is the first book that utilizes passages from another point of view besides Amelia’s. There are sections, denoted Manuscript H, which are told in a third-person perspective (rather than Amelia’s first-person, journal style) and follow the exploits of “the children” (i.e. Nefret, David, and Ramses). These purport to have been written by Ramses, and follow his point of view, but also talk about exploits of Nefret’s and David’s of which Amelia is unaware. This is partially because they are all no longer children, the youngest being Ramses who is 16 and quite mature (mostly), and so are becoming more autonomous. They are actively participating in events separate from Amelia and Emerson, and even instigating plot-points without either of their parents’ knowledge.

The book opens with the return of Ramses and David from a stay with a Bedouin tribe for several months. Ramses is dressed like a “native” in turban and headcloth, while David is dressed in a neat, European suit. Both are much changed, and Amelia (and many others except Nefret) do not immediately recognize either. The hotel doormen assume Ramses is an Egyptian and try to stop him from entering the European hotel, while allowing David to pass. This is really a bit of commentary both on the extreme superficiality of the racial prejudices against Egyptians of the time, and also about the similarity in looks between the two  boys.

It is then their sad duty to inform Ramses that his beloved cat, Bastet, passed away of old age while he was away. He doesn’t react much, naturally, but reading between the lines one can tell he’s been deeply affected by her loss. She was his friend and familiar from a very early age. They attempt to get him to adopt one of her kittens in her place, a rather silly, purry creature named Sekhmet. He is not enthused. The plot of the murder then progresses, introducing us to the Bellinghams, an American Civil War Colonel and his spoiled and selfish daughter. She spends the entire book pursuing a disgusted Ramses, while her father spends the entire book attempting to enmesh the Emersons in his affairs. Bellingham claims his daughter, Dolly, is in danger, with some evidence to back that up. Meanwhile, the Emersons are goaded into investigating a specific tomb in the Valley of the Kings, tomb 20A. Said tomb does not exist, according to all the experts, but they are lead to it by the nose anyway. At first, it is barely a hole in the ground, and inside they discover a mummified body. Hardly an unusual occurence in Egypt, but it is unusual for the mummy to be an American woman dead less than 5 years. She turns out to be the wife of Colonel Bellinham, said to have run off with his secretary five years ago. Everyone assumes the secretary subsequently killed her, and they set out to locate the man, who also appears to have designs on killing Bellingham.

This is the first time Amelia has investigated quite such a cold case, but she does go about it with her usual intelligence and vigor. She also has the active cooperation (mostly) of the Professor, and the clandestine cooperation of Ramses, Nefret and David. She has almost worked out the entire sequence of events leading to Mrs. Bellingham’s death when the dramatic denoument occurrs. It is revealed that the true killer is Bellingham himself, when they stumble on his recent murder of his former secretary (who had rather been attempting to get him to confess to the murder of his lady-love). Bellingham is an old misogynist, so Amelia naturally irritates him a great deal. He attempts to take her hostage and collapses the tomb (where it is all taking place) in on them. Ramses makes a daring leap through the falling rubble, and comes to grip with the Colonel in the dark. While attempting to subdue him, he accidentally kills him instead, and saving his mother’s life. After their rescue from the depths of the tomb, there follows a rather touching and understated scene between them. Much of his life, Ramses has asked to partake in the nightly ritual of whiskey and soda with his parents. Always, Amelia has refused on the grounds that he is too young. This night, while the others are effusive with praise, she is reserved as ever. However, she does serve him his very first whiskey and soda, a wordless sign that she no longer views him as a child, in recognition of his bravery, resourcefulness, and maturity.

It’s interesting really. Ramses’ coming of age (which is mostly what this book is about) requires the spilling of blood (Bellingham’s) and also his first navigations of the games played between men and women. But this is all balanced by his speaking aloud, for the first time, of his deep and abiding love for Nefret. She is still unaware of the depth of his regard, but he speaks of it to David (who does not understand, despite being older, but is sympathetic nonetheless).

There is a side-plot to this book as well. Peters’ skill is such that it fits harmoniously with the whole, but it is really entirely extraneous to the main plot of the book. It centers around two characters introduced in The Lion in the Valley who are having marital difficulties. Their marriage was facilitated by Amelia in the earlier volume, but now he has fallen madly in “love” with a fictional Egyptian Princess invented by a lady-medium. The medium, Mrs Jones, is afraid to cut him off for fear of his sanity, and Amelia helps to both break the young man of his dependence on Mrs. Jones and re-direct his affections to his distressed wife. Almost the entire point of this plot seems to be to bring Mrs. Jones and Cyrus Vandergelt into contact. They become engaged by the end of the story (with Amelia’s help, naturally).

Amelia is not translating any fairy-tales in this book, but the title is a reference to Ancient Egyptian literature. Several times characters have dreams featuring the cat Bastet. According to the dream papyrus, which Ramses is translating, such dreams mean good luck. There are also several cat related minor plot points, including Mrs. Jones, whose first name is Katherine, or Cat as Cyrus calls her affectionately.

There is also Sekhmet, who Ramses finally accepts as a substitute for his lost friend at the very end.

Next week, The Ape Who Guards the Balance, and the return of an old adversary!

Flash Fiction Challenge: The Shipwrecked Sailor

Chuck Wendig’s flash-fiction challenge for this past week was to choose a fairy tale and  re-write it in a new style, choosing from a  list of possibles on his blog. There’s nothing like procrastinating writing with other writing, so I thought I’d play along again. I thought at first perhaps a Western fairy tale, one of the more common ones. But none really appealed to me, and then it came to me. Of course I should write an Ancient Egyptian one! So, I have taken the Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor and attempted to re-write it in the style of Sword and Sorcery in 1000 words. I’m not sure how succesful I was, but it was fun.

The Shipwrecked Sailor is a tale originating in the Middle Kingdom and is preserved entirely in a single manuscript written by a scribe Amen-aa, son of Ameni. It is really a story within a story, but I have only rewritten the interior story, which is the main thrust of the tale anyway. The framing device is the narrator, a sailor in Pharoah’s navy trying to console his superior officer on returning home from a defeat. He is telling his superior of this experience he had on a previous voyage. And so, without further ado, I present:

The Shipwrecked Sailor
~~~

I paused at the rail of the ship, watching as the stone quay receded and the city dwindled behind us to be replaced by rocky red cliffs. My eyes blurred, and I whispered a quick prayer for protection to the Great God Min. The captain roared and I scurried about my duties, bare feet slapping on the heaving wooden deck. The Great Green heaved beneath us, as men swung through the rigging and men strained at their oars below until at last the wind filled the great sail and we cut through the waves. Our Captain’s swarthy face creased in a frown. I remembered that the fore-seers had said there would be very little wind, but already it whipped the heaving water to white froth. Our crew was experienced and our ship sturdy, but I prayed again for good weather.

The squall, when it came, appeared suddenly, almost by magic. It engulfed the ship with a whoosh and a wet thwump of sodden canvas. Timber groaned and men yelled panicked and contradictory orders at each-other. I caught hold of a rope as it whipped by and hauled on it, my skin tingling like lightening crawled across it. Magic for sure. With a deafening crack, the deck gave way, breaking in two nearly beneath my feet. I held tight to my rope for lack of a better option, and eventually it tossed me onto the spar it was attached to. There I clung as the gale raged above us, turning our faithful ship into kindling-wood and sending many good, brave men to the bottom of the sea.

My salt-rimmed eyes cleared a bit and my feet scraped on sandy bottom. An island wavered before my eyes, green and inviting. Bits of wood, cloth, and other debris littered the shore. I turned my eyes away from the emptied husks of my fallen fellow sailors, a few of whom had washed up on shore. If I ever reach home again, I will give an offering at the temple for their souls. Stumbling ashore, I found a large water-proof bag caught in a tangle of ropes and linen sail. Inside I knew I would find weapons. I armed myself with a curved sword and felt slightly better. My courage a bit restored, I sent a prayer of supplication to Lord Seth of Foreign Lands, and set off into the trees in search of…something. Some sign. Some human habitation.

Three days I wandered, drinking water from many small springs and eating a few dates here and there. On the afternoon of the third day, I discovered a valley that looked as though it were tended by the hand of man. My heart rose. I’m a sociable fellow, and wandering alone in the wilderness did not appeal to me. Perhaps there were people here. Perhaps they could help me return to my homeland. But as I wandered through fields of melons, grain and cucumbers and beneath groves of fruit trees of all sorts I saw no one. Waterfowl rested in large flocks on ponds filled with darting fish, but no hunters did I encounter. I ate and finally nestled myself into a small thicket to while away the hours of the Sun-God’s Death.

He was sailing his Divine barque low on the horizon when the shadow enveloped me, blinding me for a moment. Smoke and hot rock filled my nostrils and made my eyes water, heat as of the high desert blasted across my skin, and the earth trembled beneath me like the sea in a gale. My eyes wavered into focus, and I shivered. Standing before me, looking down from a great height out of jeweled eyes was a dragon. Each scale shone gold-tipped blue and his beard waved gently in the breeze of his great wings. My heart hammered in my throat and my mind screamed at my arms to reach for my sword — pitiful as it was in the face of such power and majesty — but my limbs would not obey me. As I lay, gasping and gaping like a stranded fish, the great creature spoke.

“What has brought you to my island, little one? Speak quickly or I shall burn you up in my fiery breath.” His voice was like thunder and hurt my ears.

“Mercy, my Lord! I am a sailor in the Great Lord’s ships bound for the mine-lands. A great storm rent our ship asunder and cast me up here, the last survivor.”

He smiled, showing all his great curved teeth. “Fear not, little one, for you are blest by the Great God. This is an enchanted isle, where nothing is ever wanting. Bide here but a few months and another ship shall sail past these shores. Then you shall go aboard and they will carry you back to your own lands. Fear not, for you shall not die here, but in your own village in your own time.”

A great weight lifted from my chest and I scrambled to my knees to grovel. “Oh great Dragon, thank you for your kindness. I will tell of your greatness to the Great Lord himself and all His court. I will bring back offerings as if to a god for you, I swear. Only do not let me die here in foreign lands.”

He let out a rumbling laugh. “Foolish mortal. This land is rich in everything I could want. In any case, once you leave these shores you will never be able to find this island again. It will vanish as if it has never been.”

My face burned with shame, and I bowed lower, fearing I had angered him. But he only said “Come, I will show you the wonders of this island. You shall refresh yourself, and be easy until your ship comes to bear you away.”

So I rose and followed the great serpent further into the heart of the island.

“The Hippopotamus Pool” Re-Read

(There be spoilers in these ‘ere waters, aye. Read at ye’r own risk.)

'The Hippopotamus Pool' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Hippopotamus Pool’ by Elizabeth Peters

At last we come to book 8, The Hippopotamus Pool. The name is a reference to the story of Apophis and Sekenenre. The tale, which Amelia is translating this season, is not especially relevant to this book except that it it set during the time of Queen Tetisheri whose tomb the Emersons are principally concerned with this season. They are in search of her tomb, having noticed an influx of objects bearing her name on the antiquities market, and the Professor is particularly anxious to save the tomb before more damage is done. This season, the entire family is on hand to help (or hinder as the case may be) the excavation. Even Walter and Evelyn eventually return to Egypt for the first time since they were married in book 1. They form part of the Emerson Excavation Team (not it’s official name, but that’s what it should be called!) as philologist and artist respectively.

At the beginning of this book, the elder Emersons are approached by a mysterious man who claims to be a reincarnation of a priest of Tetisheri. He offers to show them to her tomb in or der to preserve it, then is promptly kidnapped and murdered under the Professor’s nose before he can do so. Almost immediately, a man named Ricetti also approaches them. Ricetti, a hugely obese man whom Nefret refers to as the Hippopotamus Man, once ran the illegal antiquities trade in Egypt. He was driven out of business by Sethos, but with Sethos’ apparent death, he is now eager to reclaim his place, and apparently intends to do so by claiming the Queen’s Tomb. The Emerson’s rush to stop him, and eventually locate the tomb itself, which is almost undisturbed. This is rather a huge deal at the time, since no other undisturbed royal burials have been discovered yet (Tutankhamon’s famous tomb won’t be discovered for another two decades). Naturally, by now the Emersons are apparently contending with multiple gangs of thieves and interested parties whose attention is riveted by their unique find. Some of these people seem bent on helping them, and others are focused on harming various members of the family. Nefret herself garners a lot of attention due to a rather startling resemblance between her features and those of the images of Tetisheri. Eventually, both Ramses and Nefret are kidnapped within the same night. Amelia rescues Ramses with the help of Walter and Daoud, while Emerson is away in search of information. Nefret rescues herself with very little difficulty.

The most notable thing, from a series standpoint, of this book is the introduction of David Todros. David is one of my favorite characters, and his advent completes the young trio of friends (Ramses, Nefret, David). He is the grandson of Abdullah, but he has been raised by his drunken father and later an abusive “Master” who taught him to make fake antiquities for sale. David is prodigiously talented as an artist, and shows off his skills several times throughout the book. He runs away from his cruel master when the man beats him after a visit by the Emersons. The Professor had offered him sanctuary, should he care to come to them, since he would not live with his maternal grandfather’s family (he had been taught to hate them by the aforesaid drunken father). During his attempt to reach them, he is attacked and Ramses saves his life. The two are best friends, and blood brothers, from that moment forward. The rest of the family is a bit more skeptical of his loyalty at first, but he gradually earns everyone’s trust over the course of the book, and the elder Emerson’s adopt him as a foster son, much like they have Nefret. David is the first character of color to become a major and recurring character (his grandfather Abdullah has grown in importance over the last 8 books, but he is still mostly a supporting character). In the up-coming books, he adds unique and important viewpoints to the narratives. He’s also one of the most genuinely kind and loving of the characters. He has flaws of course, but he’s the gentlest of the family, next to Evelyn. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites.

The first half of this book is rather jarring in the way the Emersons interact with the other characters. The Professor behaves extremely high-handedly toward a great many native Egyptian characters, albeit only ones morally questionable. However much his behavior is historically accurate to turn-of-the-century Egypt, it’s a bit disturbing to see it laid so bare in a character who otherwise seems generally ahead of his time in many of his attitudes. Later, once he has what he wants, namely the tomb, he goes back to his general policy of “live and let live” with the rest of the population of Egypt.

Near the end of this book, we learn that one of the groups of thieves arrayed against the Emersons is lead by Bertha (who you may remember from The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog) who is now pregnant, and the leader of an all-woman antiquities-thieving gang. She still hates Amelia passionately, and Amelia still does not understand why (although she thinks she does). Another new character, Sir Edward Washington, rescues her from Bertha’s clutches, then abruptly disappears after a rather enigmatic comment about her being beloved by someone he admires greatly.

The tomb which is so central to the plot of this book is actually apocryphal. Tetisheri’s tomb has never been identified, and the tomb Peters writes about is primarily fictional (though probably based on actual tombs). Interestingly, there is a point in the book where a statue of Taweret is discovered within Tetisheri’s tomb, though it apparently was placed there by one of the thieves. Such a statue actually was discovered in a tomb in the area known as Dra Abu’l Naga, which is where the fictional tomb of Tetisheri is supposed to be. Granted, the book was written in 1996 and as far as I can ascertain the figure was discovered in 2008, but still. Perhaps it’s just one of life’s funny little coincidences.

Next Sunday (hopefully) we’ll be on to book 9, Seeing a Large Cat. It’s a sad book in some ways, but as wonderful as ever.

“Curtsies & Conspiracies”

(I haven’t finished The Hippopotamus Pool yet, so here’s another book I read this past month instead.)

'Curtsies & Conspiracies' by Gail Carriger

‘Curtsies & Conspiracies’ by Gail Carriger

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the second book in Gail Carriger’s YA Finishing School series. I’ve been waiting eagerly to read this one, and Santa answered my wish this past Christmas with a beautiful new copy under the tree. I read and reviewed the first one for Conjurings, a fantasy magazine, rather than this blog so those who haven’t yet read the first book may want to click away until they have the opportunity to do so as the two are rather closely tied together. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for this book as much as possible.

I had high expectations of this book, having greatly enjoyed the first Finishing School book. Nor was I disappointed. Sophronia returns, and we are led directly into her Finishing School Assessment. These are not so much to see if they’re ready to graduate, but rather to ensure they are continuing to progress in a manner the school finds satisfactory. Otherwise, they will be removed (but not, surprisingly, permanently). Naturally, Sophronia does exceedingly well, earning the apparent ire of her class-mates, even her best friend Dimity. Her nemesis, Monique, does so poorly that she is put on notice and told she had better just get married.

Sophronia is very lonely for the first part of the book while the other girls ostracize her, but this has the upside of making her spend more time with Soap. That relationship progresses rather confusingly for her, as he seems interested in more than friendship (even kissing her!). She enjoys the kissing, but refuses to become involved any deeper, resolving to throw herself into finishing properly rather than romantic enganglements. They are a bit young still at that, but I must admit I’m still rooting whole-heartedly for the Soap/Sophronia pairing. He loves her whole-heartedly, both in her lady-like aspects and her not-so-lady-like sneaky-pants aspects. In fact, he expects her to pull her weight in any escapade, rather than being startled when she does as some of the other males in the story do.

The second part of the book is taken up with the school visiting London, for a variety of reasons. Monique’s coming-out ball, is one. But the Vampire Professor is also required in London for a testing of a new sort of ship which flies very high in the aetherosphere. Certain parties want to see if it’s possible for vampires to survive in it, and the Professor is the only vampire with a moveable tether (i.e. the School itself). Meanwhile, someone is trying to kidnap Dimity and her brother, and no one is sure who or why. Sophronia initially suspects the Picklemen, but there are so many other interested parties it all becomes quite murky. We learn quite a bit more about the background of the Plumleigh-Teignmotts (and the reason for their ridiculous appelation), and Sophronia gets an education on vampire hives and London fashionable society.

Overall, Sophronia acquits herself well. She achieves most of her objectives, protects her friends and her school, and makes some head-way on understanding all the mysterious goings-on around her. She also learns that sometimes friends ask you to do morally reprehensible things without thinking it through. Of course, many of Sophronia’s friends are spies, assassins and evil geniuses. But she still has a conscience, and doesn’t believe everyone deserves her ‘professional’ attentions. My one concern is that she might go and fall in love with Viscount Mersey (Felix). He’s a pompous young ass at the beginning, but continued exposure to Sophronia begins to cure him of that. Still. I do hope they don’t become a pair.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is as full of delightful characters as any other Carriger book, with a few returning. One is especially exciting, Lord Akeldama! He doesn’t play a very large role, but there are some hints that he’ll be playing a larger role in Sophronia’s life in future books. It’s terribly exciting as Akeldama is one of my very favorite vampires.

If you haven’t yet, check out the Finishing School Tumblr, it’s highly amusing and there are some rather nice .gif sets on it that companion the books beautifully. Also, because it’s so very beautifully done, I must share the Japanese cover of Curtsies & Conspiracies. I found it really quite delightful.

Japanese Cover

Japanese Cover

Now we just await book three, Waistcoats & Weaponry. There’s no release date as of yet, but it appears Gail has finished writing it anyhow, so perhaps the launch will be sooner rather than later. Then again, the pace of traditional publishing does tend toward the glacial, so perhaps not.

A Small, Unintended Break

Today I wrote new fiction for the first time in over a month (I do not include blogging, which was entirely about books read recently). It wasn’t much, just a few extra paragraphs in a completed short-story which needed some fleshing-out in certain sections. But it was all new, and it felt good.

I didn’t mean to take a break from writing over the holidays, and I certainly didn’t mean to let it go on for this long. I have a myriad of projects, some unfinished, some un-begun, some merely awaiting final polish. But somehow, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for ANY of them recently, and even the thought of sitting down to write was profoundly unappealing. Naturally, this fuelled my perennial sense of being a writing impostor. If I was really meant to be a writer, wouldn’t I be writing? Aren’t I a fraud to call myself a writer despite not feeling that insatiable need so many others talk about?

Of course, this is all a bit harsh, but that’s the way of the writer-brain sometimes. In this case, I apparently desperately needed that small break, and eventually gave myself mental permission for it. During that month, my subconscious was evidently working over-time at various plot problems and untangling knots. At the beginning of this week, it finally presented the solutions to me, tied up in tidy bows, and I found I actually did want to write after all. In fact, my brain wouldn’t let me turn to any other projects, either writing or reading, until I had unburdened it properly today.

I didn’t write enough, and I need to get back into some self-discipline, but the break seems to have been just the thing I needed to re-kindle my enthusiasm. The break may have been unintended, but it was just my writer-brain telling me to chill out for a bit. If I wasn’t a “real” writer, the break would have simply stretched out indefinitely until I admitted I had quit. The fact that I sat down to write today, despite various attempts at procrastination, means perhaps I’m meant to be a writer after all.

Writers write, but everyone is allowed a vacation now and then. Even if sometimes it feels like we don’t yet deserve one.

 

 

“The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog” Re-read

'The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog’ by Elizabeth Peters

Spoilery spoilers ahead. Read the book first, please!

The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog is the 7th Amelia Peabody mystery, and one of my favorite of the early ones in the series. I’m not sure why exactly, but I’ve always enjoyed this one, despite the absurd length of the title. It begins almost immediately after the events of The Last Camel Died at Noon, and recaps briefly some of the events between the two. This is also the first book which really begins to play with the idea of Amelia one day “publishing” her “journals” (which you are encouraged to believe this is a volume of them).  She actually opens by talking about her encounter with an editorial-type person who says she uses too much poetry. Then she flashes forward to her being on a mission to rescue Emerson from imprisonment and possible death with Abdullah at her side. This little teaser is right in the first few pages, and might be slightly frustrating for a first-time reader, as the actual abduction doesn’t take place until nearly halfway (about 120 pages in, depending on edition) through the book!

The first part of the book is devoted to life in England, the settling in of Nefret among her British peers, and Amelia’s rather forlorn wish for days gone by when she and Emerson were young(er) and newly wed with no distractions of a Ramses-nature. This is an entirely understandable desire to the parent of any young child. Not that she (or any of us) wishes to be rid of their child, but rather that sometimes we begin to miss old ways of life. Such nostalgia is rarely indulged, but in this case, it almost is in a rather macabre way. But more on that in a minute (see, I can do it too). First, Nefret. As is predictable, the combination of beauty, brains, and an upbringing entirely foreign to Victorian British society makes life a bit hard for her right at first. She is uncomfortable and out of step with life, and jealous peers make life a bit hard for her. But she rallies, and determines to spend some time in England, with Walter and Evelyn, being tutored in all the things she needs to know (as determined by fashionable society). This sensible course of action also results in Ramses deciding to remain in England (with HER, it hardly need be said), freeing Amelia and the Professor to go to Egypt alone. Almost like a second honeymoon.

Amelia and Emerson begin their stay in Egypt this season with the usual attendant mysterious happenings (a few abduction attempts, a rifled room, etc). They ignore all this with their usual aplomb and begin to plan for future seasons when they wish to set up a permanent expedition house and devote several years to a single site. To this end, they begin making a survey of various sites, meanwhile meeting with old friends, including of course Abdullah and his sons. They also meet with a new character, one Mr. Vincey, who was evidently disgraced within the world of Egyptology many years ago and begs Amelia for a place on their staff. He asks that they care for his cat briefly as well, a large male named Anubis who apparently strongly resembles Ramses’ cat Bastet.

At last the chair-gripping moment we’ve been waiting for since chapter one, and Emerson is kidnapped literally under Amelia’s nose. She is also almost carried away, but a group of drunken young gentlemen “happen” along in the nick of time to prevent this. Naturally, she is wild and willful as always, and goes about finding him and then saving him. She and Abdullah and Abdullah’s relations singlehandedly locate, free Emerson, and route his abductor entirely. But! Calamity! A fate almost worse than death….Emerson does not remember her! He has suffered a blow to the head and subsequent amnesia, making him think it’s about 13 years earlier, he’s a bachelor, and he’s still working at Amarna. He vehemently denies he would ever think of marrying, and Amelia is forced to pretend they are not married but to sort of woo him back to her gently so as not to “frighten” him. Naturally, she’s successful in the end, and the intervening pages are a series of direct references to Crocodile on the Sandbank and their initial romance.

There are several deft and delightful touches in this book. First, there’s the deepening of the relationship between Abdullah and Amelia. While they’re crawling about on the roof of Emerson’s temporary prison, she has a moment of “womanly weakness” and Abdullah comforts her. He calls her “daughter” and she realizes he cares deeply for her outside of his relationship with Emerson. In the succeeding pages, Amelia relies on him above all other men, save one, her old friend Cyrus Vandergelt (introduced in The Curse of the Pharaohs which I didn’t write about). Cyrus lavishes all his resources on helping her and Emerson, though as it turns out not quite as much as he claims he is.

Another amusing touch is the re-advent of the Master Criminal, Sethos. He masquerades as one of Amelia’s old friends for half the book, without her once suspecting him (indeed, I’d forgotten myself that he re-appears here, until almost the end of the book). His previous promise never to interfere with her again helps to blind her to his presence in her life. Granted, in a twist of logic almost worthy of young Ramses, he does hold to his promise in a way and rather than hindering or working against her (overtly), he helps her in protecting Emerson. In the end, Sethos gives his life for them, taking a bullet meant for Emerson. His associates hustle his body off for burial (or…perhaps not 😉 ) and that’s that.

What really draws me to this book however is the return to the initial courtship of the Emersons. It’s every bit as delightfuly wacky as the first time around. But this time, there’s a hint of tragedy about it. Because of course, this time Amelia knows they are married and loves him passionately, but the Professor is outwardly antagonistic toward her. She is forced to pretend to a mere working relationship while desperately missing having the love and support of her husband by her side. As always, Peters walks the line between hilarity and tragedy with her usual skill.

The title, The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog is a reference to an Ancient Egyptian story called The Doomed Prince. In it, a young prince is doomed to die by either the crocodile, a snake, or a dog, but he is saved by a brave and clever princess from at least one of those fates (the manuscript is incomplete). Amelia is translating it for her own amusement, and sees several similarities with her current difficulties.

Next week, The Hippopotamus Pool. More Egyptology, a new villain, and more Emerson shenanigans!

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' by N. K. Jemisin

‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin

I’ve been wanting to read some N.K. Jemisin fiction for a while, having heard that she wrote excellent fantasy with lots of diversity. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, her debut and the first book in her Inheritance trilogy. I must say, it was quite an experience! I sat down to read a chapter or two before bed one night and my sleep schedule was borked for a week afterwards! I mean, I’m no stranger to reading a book in one sitting, but it’s been a while since a new book has so completely pulled me in as this one did. There are some rough spots in her execution, the sorts of things common in any debut, but they barely impinged on my single-minded focus in following Yeine Darr through her adventures with powerful magic and even more powerful angry gods.

The book starts out with Yeine traveling to a strange city. She has been summoned by the ruler of the known world, who is also her grandfather. Though the two have never met, there is no love lost between them, and he essentially sentences her to death by naming her heir, along with two more powerful cousins. She is forced to remain in the ruling city, inhabited only by the extensive ruling family, and their weapons of choice: a collection of vanquished and rebellious gods. Yeine’s brief (the story takes place over the course of a few days) stay among the Arameri family is frought with tension and conflict as her co-heirs scheme to defeat her at the ceremony and the enslaved gods scheme to gain her help in escaping their imprisonment.

Yeine’s story is complicated by the fact that she was not raised among the Arameri, her mother’s people, but among her father’s people, the Darr. The Darr are considered more savage than the Arameri (at least by the Arameri), but Yeine was their leader until she abdicated in order to obey her grandfather’s summons. She mourns the loss of her home and the people who actually care for her, and does her best to provide for them even though she is handicapped by politics. Her status as a half-breed and the fact that she takes after her father’s people who are much darker than the Arameri makes her stand out. She is by no means the only half-breed, just one of the highest-ranked within the city.

There is also a romance-thread, of sorts. Yeine is courted by the god of Death and Chaos and Darkness, one of the ones held in bondage to the Arameri. For her part, she begins to love the Dark God back, which is a sort of allegory for the fatalistic way she accepts her own inevitable death. She does not believe she can save herself, she fights only to protect her people after she is gone, and later to help free the gods who she had come to love.

Without giving anything away, the ending was entirely satisfactory and gives a smooth tie into the next book without leaving you hanging too much. I’m excited to read The Broken Kingdoms, but I’m not beating my head against the wall because I couldn’t check it out at the same time. That can be a bit of a two-edged sword for an author, but in this case I’m a little glad. I’ve honestly been a bit scared to read another Jemisin novel until I can get a solid 6 hour break during day-time to read it!

“The Last Camel Died at Noon” Re-read

'The Last Camel Died at Noon' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Last Camel Died at Noon’ by Elizabeth Peters

The Last Camel Died at Noon is the sixth Amelia Peabody Mystery (APM) by Elizabeth Peters. I’ve always found this one memorable and compelling for some reason. It’s actually most likely a combination of reasons, starting with the introduction of Nefret Forth, a major character in the series henceforth. Nefret is as much a special character as the rest of the cast; beautiful, talented, clever, good-hearted and wealthy. If that sounds like the description of a Mary-Sue, it could well be, except Peters manages to avoid that with Nefret with her usual careful skill. Nefret is a full character, developed over many books, and with her fair share of flaws and human weaknesses. She may be over-burdened with gifts on the surface, but she also has her own distinct character arc in which she grows and changes and develops as a person.

Much of that is in future books however. In this book, she mostly appears briefly, and at the very end. But her very existence and rescue by the eponymous heroine and her family is the entire thrust of this book. The Last Camel Died at Noon is a bit different in form from the previous books in the series. The main thrust of the story is not about Amelia solving a murder mystery, but rather her family’s adventures in the desert. It starts a bit slow, building into the dramatic moment when they finally strike off into the desert on camel-back, bent on discovering a lost oasis which they believe may contain the remnants of the Meroitic royalty who ruled Ancient Egypt during the Late Period.

Naturally, the Emersons discover not just the remains of the ancient royalty, but their descendants as well. This is the final compelling piece for me. The mere thought of living, breathing descendants of that culture still practicing the old ways makes every Egyptological bone in my body quiver with longing. There are so many gaps in our knowledge, the thought that the culture might have been preserved nearly intact after all these centuries is a compelling fantasy. This section of the book also gives Peters ample scope for displaying her considerable knowledge of Ancient Egyptian culture entwined with her highly developed imagination. The picture she paints of the culture preserved in the Lost Oasis is interesting, though she does not show it as in-depth and personal as one might like. The view is very much that of the outsider, the anthropologist, with a few characters necessary to the mystery plot leaping out of the background. Coincidentally, these are also the characters who already know enough English to interact meaningfully with the Emersons.

On re-reading this, it’s easy to see hints of “white-saviorism” in the interactions of the Emersons with the natives of the Lost Oasis. However, for the most part their role in saving the tiny kingdom from a despotic tyrant is rather peripheral. The only exception is Ramses, who has a rather more direct role, albeit an almost entirely subtextual and off-screen role. They don’t even do much to save the “rekkit” (the pseudo-enslaved race who live with the Meroitic descendants) from their downtrodden state. There is a plot arc that begins the Emersons, particularly Amelia and the Professor, along this path of “saving” them from their evil masters. But it fizzles out, and it’s left with the implication that the victorious Meroitic Prince Tarek will save his own people at some point in the future. I’m not sure if this signifies Peters changing her mind on the plot mid-way through the book or if she always planned it that way, but it works well enough here.

As I mentioned earlier, the introduction of Nefret into the Emerson family is the major plot-thrust of this book, though it’s not apparent until the very end of the book. In fact, they don’t even meet her or know of her existence until the last quarter of the book. But the best part of it all is really Ramses’ reaction to Nefret, and Amelia’s blind perplexity. The boy is struck dumb at her first appearance, and continues unable to speak her name or speak intelligently in her presence. For her part, Nefret barely notices the boy, though she’s rather understandably distracted. Amelia doesn’t see this as the first signs of Ramses profound infatuation and attachment to her, still viewing him as a little boy incapable of developing such strong feelings. She is grateful for the silence, however.

The Last Camel marks a bit of a turning point. Here we’ve collected most of the important characters (there’s at least one more still to come, but that’s several books away) and from here on out, Peters sticks a bit more closely to her formula as well, without as many deviations in form such as this book was.

Next week, we get to see how Nefret starts settling in with The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog.

Don’t Look Back

It’s not that I object on prinicple to looking back to the past. I’m a historian. It’s what I do. I believe looking back is a necessary step to seeing where we’re going in the future. But this past year has been truly horrible, overall. The only reason I really want to look back on it is to make sure it’s well and truly dead. So, instead of one of those 2013 Round-ups, I’m just gonna write a little bit about the future today on this first day of the New Year.

2014 is unspoiled and still full of hope and promise. I’m hoping to write more, read more, and cook more creatively in the coming year. I  hope my son decides to potty-train, and my pup settles into obedience like her mother. I especially hope our family can begin the process of recovering from all the unexpected (and expected) downturns and deaths we’ve experienced in the past year.

This is the year I’m going to finish my novel and begin the query process with it. It’s beyond time for me to stop sitting on this project and just do it already. As the phrase so elegantly goes, Time to shit or get off the pot. I’m tired of procrastinating my life away, and I’m going to do something about it. This year is going to be my year. Or else.

Happy New Year all. And Good Luck.

“The Lion in the Valley” Re-Read

Spoilery spoilers ahead! Proceed with caution! Awooooga!

'The Lion in the Valley' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Lion in the Valley’ by Elizabeth Peters

The fourth Amelia Peabody Mystery, The Lion in the Valley, is almost a continuation of the previous book. We pick up where we left off in Amelia’s search for the nefarious Master Criminal, and they pick up their excavations at a site quite near their last season’s dig. For this year, they dig at Dahshoor, the Director of Antiquities graciously giving up his spot to them. Emerson takes all the credit for this rather surprising bit of charity (they are not on good terms with the Director), but Amelia strongly suspects her precocious son was instrumental in arranging this. This is one of those little subtextual things which Ramses does that makes us love him. How many 8-year-old boys would not only realize their mother lusted after pyramids, but then be able to procure them for her?

The Emerson’s return to Cairo is plagued almost immediately by mishaps. Ramses is kidnapped from his parents’ side atop the Great Pyramid (once upon a time, tourists used to be allowed to climb them, sadly). He is rescued almost immediately, but not by Amelia or her formidable husband. Rather, a stranger saves him and returns him to his parents. The stranger, though dressed as the poorest native beggar, is really a fallen Englishman and Emerson hires him on the spot as a caretaker for Ramses. The man is rather truculent, but accepts the position and gives his name only as Nemo.

Later that evening, a rich young heiress who Amelia had interested herself in, is abducted (or flees) from her room in the hotel and her presumed lover is found murdered among the sheets. Amid this cloud of mystery, the Emersons leave for their dig in Dahshoor, though Amelia is convinced the murderer is her old adversary, the Master Criminal. The murdered man was one of his confederates, and had been about to betray him!

Soon after their arrival, they are joined by a young lady claiming at first to be a student-egyptologist. She is in some distress, but Amelia sees through her “disguise” immediately and addresses her as Miss Debenham (the young society lady who vanished from her hotel room) in private. Determining to help the young lady, and her solve her mysterious troubles, Amelia sets about trying to uncover the murderer of the young lady’s presumed lover. She is convinced the notorious womanizer and antiquities thief was murdered by the Master Criminal because he intended to betray that shadowy figure (as it turns out, she was right). There are the usual amounts of Sturm und Drang, dead bodies, antiquities and history lessons as the Emersons proceed along the winding path toward solving their mysteries and discovering the identity of the man known by his criminal associates as Sethos.

This book begins to develop the friendship between Amelia and Abdullah, the Emerson’s Egyptian foreman (reis). Abdullah is in nearly every book until his death much later in the series, but in the first few he is rather interchangeable with any of the other native men, even sometimes a suspect himself in the nefarious goings-on. But now he is beginning to be an established recurring character, and we’re learnign more about him and his extended family (many of whom work for the Emersons and are considered friends). Abdullah himself has a strange relationship with her, partially loving and partially exasperated (rather mirroring the Professor’s feelings, but platonically, for Amelia). On Amelia’s part, this book really marks the point where she begins to feel affection and respect untinged with doubt for Abdullah. It’s also the book where he famously laments “Every year, another dead body!” for the first time.

The Lion in the Valley really explores jealousy and uncertainty on the part of the Professor. In a rather brilliant bit of writing, Peters conveys Sethos’ obvious infatuation with Amelia through her viewpoint, while making it equally clear that she does not quite realize such a thing is possible. The Professor clearly does, and it begins to wear on his nerves until the dramatic moment where Sethos kidnaps Amelia with the aim of forcing her to love him. This is when we finally meet the man as himself and not one of his many disguises (several of whom appear in the last two books). He is an interesting character, and his declaration after defeat that he’ll never bother them again is rather disappointing. Except, of course, he returns later in the series. But, more on that in later posts.

This book’s title is another Ancient Egyptian literary reference to an inscription of Ramses II. The relevant part is in the front of the book (a custom Peters adopts almost exclusively later in the series).

Lord of fear, great of fame,
In the hearts of all the lands.
Great of awe, rich in glory,
As is Set upon his mountain….
Like a wild lion in the valley of the goats.

The title is a clear reference to the revelation of the Master Criminal’s “identity” as Sethos, named after a Pharaoh who took his name from the god Set, who is the Lion in the valley of the Goats. This is a bit like the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of saying “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and is certainly an apt description for the modern Sethos. He has built his criminal empire on being greatly feared and widely known by the criminal element of Cairo, even those not directly associated with his organization. It should also be noted (as Ramses points out) that Sethos I was the father of Ramses II (for whom Amelia’s son is nick-named). I’ve always believed this is a bit of foreshadowing on Peters’  part of revelations coming many many books later.

I’ve always enjoyed Lion, though this book’s particular set of “cursed young lovers” (Enid Debenham and Donald/Nemo) are rather tepid and a bit beside the point of the rest of the book. This book is really about Amelia’s relationships with The Professor, Sethos, and Abdullah. All three men are hugely important in her life, and Lion begins some of those relationships and develops others. It’s one of my favorite of the earlier books. But then, I have a weakness for Sethos!

Next week, I’ll be doing The Last Camel Died at Noon, skipping over The Deeds of the Disturber. I’m rather unfond of that book (and even skipped reading it in this re-read session), mainly because I loathe with passionate hatred Percy Peabody, Amelia’s noxious nephew who is introduced in the book. He is especially unbearable in Disturber as all the principle characters don’t yet realize his perfidy and he gets away with tormenting Ramses like the disgusting bully he is rather a lot.

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