Historical Accuracy, Representation and Ancient Egypt

I don’t talk about race much (not just here, but anywhere on the web). I don’t really feel qualified, despite reading and thinking a lot about race, because, well. I’m white. Whiter-than-white. White-bread white. I know enough to know that my understanding of racial issues is a second-hand one, so I usually feel it’s best for me to keep my trap shut and promote the words of more qualified (often under appreciated) speakers who are usually more eloquent on the subject than I am anyway.

However, there is one area which I do feel pretty qualified to talk about, even on the subject of race, and that’s Ancient Egypt. I’ve been studying it for half my life, first as a hobby and then professionally. I’m certainly not the foremost expert on it, but I’m knowledgeable enough to make reading historical fiction set in that time and place a bit difficult for me. Assuming I can find any in the first place of course. But when I do find a historical fiction or historical fantasy set in Ancient Egypt, I’m always hugely excited to get my hands on it, and usually somewhat disappointed by the end. But rarely am I angry. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes changes are made deliberately to facilitate the story. Reading fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. I do my best to just suspend my inner Historian and enjoy a well-told narrative. But sometimes the deliberate historical inaccuracies are Not Ok. Sometimes they are rage-inducingly Not Ok.

I (relatively) recently began listening the audio version of a book set in the same village as my own WIP. It was a historical fantasy with obvious magical elements, but I enjoy those when done well. This one had achieved a certain amount of acclaim, so I had high hopes, despite some scholarly differences with the version of the world as I encountered it in the first few pages. And then we got to the deal-breaker. A female character, one who the signs pointed to being the primary love-interest, was encountered by the main character. The female character was described as extraordinarily beautiful…and blonde and blue-eyed. She had a local name, and was heavily implied to be of local ancestry, but she was clearly being described as white.

Ancient Egyptians, like modern Egyptians, were brown and black people.

That’s all there is to it. I have never heard of an authentic case of an ancient egyptian being blonde haired or blue-eyed. Some of them had lighter brown hair, a few are believed to have had green or hazel eyes. But they’re people of color as we say now, not white. It’s doubtful the average Egyptian would even have SEEN very many truly pale people. Blonde hair and blue eyes would have been so unusual as to elicit not just comment, but probably also a certain amount of superstition and perhaps even suspicion.

There are two issues here, historical accuracy and representation. Both are tightly intertwined, but they are separate. To trounce on historical accuracy in order to take away some of the all-too-small percentage of representation enjoyed by people of color is really rather reprehensible. I didn’t actually continue listening to the book, but shut it off immediately in order to preserve my blood-vessels. Perhaps the author found a way to justify this deviation within the story. But I doubt he would have found a satisfactory justification for stealing representation from a dramatically under-served segment of the reading population.

Representation is important for it’s own sake too, even if you need to trounce on historical accuracy to achieve a wider range of it (which you usually don’t, for the record). Representation for oppressed and minority populations is hugely important, both for the people who are represented, and for everyone else. Stories tell us who we are as humans, and if we consistently see characters represented and portrayed in very narrow parameters, we start to believe that’s all there is to humanity in the real world. If you can’t see why this might be a bad thing for all concerned, then I’m afraid there’s not much else to say. We need a wide range of characters. People need to see themselves in stories, in a variety of positions. And people from the dominant groups in society need to see other people, people who don’t look like them, in a variety of stories. We need it as people, and as a species.

So, I will not be reading any more of this author’s work. I’m sorry I bought the audio-book, and feel like I wasted my money. Some authors deserve a second chance. Some don’t.

On the bright side, this did inspire me to work all the harder on my own novelization of this particular Ancient Egyptian village. Mine will be bigger, and better, and truer, and better at representing the amazing badassery of the villagers.

I hope.

“The Ape Who Guards the Balance” Re-read

Warning: Massive spoilers ahead. If you don’t want to know who dies in this book, don’t keep reading. 

'The Ape Who Guards the Balance' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Ape Who Guards the Balance’ by Elizabeth Peters

This one has a lot going on in it, aside from the main mystery. The main mystery is pretty straightforward, simply the pursuit of the usual suspects who are antiquities thieves in and around Luxor. Amelia’s old nemesis/admirer Sethos is back on the scene, though he doesn’t appear to be involved with her current troubles. At first.

There are other, more personal plot issues happening however. We hear quite a lot from Ramses, in the form of Manuscript H, in this volume. He is more passionately in love with Nefret than ever, and in greater pain because of it. He even begins to be jealous, and in fact suspicious that she and David have fallen in love, based on half-overheard snips of conversation which he entirely misinterprets. But we’ll be back to David in a minute.

Old friends and enemies show up in this one, including Sir Edward Washington, who helps to guard the family while they’re under attack. Layla, a native woman who was a subordinate of Bertha returns, and even Walter and Evelyn make an appearance on the scene with their daughter Lia (short for Amelia). Which brings us back to David. For it seems he and Lia have fallen madly, passionately, deeply, and entirely socially unacceptably in love. This precipitates an ugly but entirely predictable (for the time-period) family crisis. The lines along which the two sides are drawn are rather interesting, but everyone knows the most important opinion is Amelia’s. If she approves the match, everyone else will fall in behind her (or she’ll make them do so). And if she doesn’t, that’s the end of it. Amelia, for all her enlightened views on women and other downtrodden sorts, runs right into her own deeply buried prejudices, the sort instilled by a deeply, viciously racist and classist society.

Peters does her usual stellar job of exploring the difficulty of facing your own ugly side. Naturally, Amelia rises to the challenge and exterminates (as much as she can) these ugly feelings, consenting to David and Lia’s engagement. One of the things that really helps her though is her close friendship and love for Abdullah, David’s grandfather. Abdullah is actually not much happier about the love-tangle than Lia’s parents. His discussions with Amelia on the subject, and his continued devotion and gentlemanly demeanor toward her help her realize how very without foundation her objections are. But the true clincher is when Bertha, her old nemesis, after an unsuccessful abduction attempt, surprises them all and fires a gun at close range toward Amelia. The nearest help is Abdullah, and he does the only thing possible to save her, which is step forward and take the bullet himself.

This scene moves me to the point of tears every time (I’m actually tearing up just writing about it, and in the middle of the Public Library too!). Abdullah dies in Amelia’s arms, surrounded by the entire family, his and hers. His last words are to Emerson, a warning to watch over Amelia, because “She is not…” What she is not is never said, but Emerson understands perfectly what he means.

*Brief intermission for the writer to compose herself.*

On the archaeological side, we are introduced to Mr. Theodore Davis, a wealthy dilettante. He is excavating in the Valley of the Kings, near the Emerson’s own, rather less exciting excavations. His pig-headed, short-sighted, uneducated approach to excavation is motivated entirely by greed for “treasure” and a disregard for all historical knowledge. This, predictably, rather drives the Professor to rage, particularly when the excavators turn up a new tomb for Davis, with part of it’s contents intact and several mummies. The tomb is KV55, an actual tomb and the contents described are the actual contents of said tomb. Peters fudges a few of the details of the excavation, to include it within her plot and allow the Emersons to be there, but by and large her description is thoroughly accurate. Davis insists that he’s discovered the mummy of Queen Tiye, though all the knowledgeable archaeologists (i.e. the Emersons) disagree entirely, and some are rather of the opinion that perhaps it was her son, Akhenaton, who was interred there.

This volume of Amelia’s adventures ends with her and Emerson making a survey of sites in need of excavation in order to determine where to begin excavating the next season (and several seasons in the future). The final scene is an entirely touching little scene with Ramses and his mother, where she asks him to accompany her to visit Abdullah’s grave.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Twisted Love

This past week’s flash fiction challenge from Sir Wendig was a Valentine’s Day themed one called Twisted Love. It does what it says on the box, and any genre was welcome. So I knew I needed to write about a character from my historical fiction novel. She’s one of the antagonists (sort of) and this is the only bit of writing I’ve done from her point of view. As an aside, I really recommend writing snippets from another character’s point of view which will not be in the final novel. Writing this little piece (which ties in closely to a very pivotal scene in the book) really clarified and expanded some things, and helped me understand the motivations of one of the supporting characters. That greater understanding then helps to inform my writing when I’m working with her in a scene. Which in turn gives her and the scene greater depth and reality. So as much as I generally just enjoy writing for the Flash Fiction Challenges, this one also helped me with my main WIP, which makes it even more valuable. 

Here it is: Twisted Love
~~~~

She crouched behind the small decorative pyramid attached to a House of the Ka, her fists clenched and her stomach  roiling with a mixture of desire and hatred. Her onyx-hard eyes followed the two people walking hand-in-hand among the monuments for the dead. They always slipped away together to come here. She always swore she would no longer follow them, but somehow, time after time she found herself in this same place where they came to be alone. She had never yet been able to watch them once they were truly alone, but she could picture it. His hands would caress the girl’s soft brown skin, his lips explore her sensitive spots, breath tickling and warming, hearts beating together as he tasted her on his tongue.

Henutmire shook her head to rid herself of the painfully arousing images, whimpering softly in her throat. It should be me.  The thought was seductive, no matter how often she told herself it was impossible. She peeked around the corner. The couple had disappeared into one of the chapels nearby. She ought to creep away. She had no business here. Her love was not returned, and there was nothing she could do here except make herself miserable. Yet still she stayed, knees bent painfully and back prickled with sweat from the glory of the Sun-Boat.

She would go. This was madness, beneath her to stay here in discomfort hoping for some scrap of sound or glimpse of flesh to feed her lovesick imagination. She had too much pride to hang on anyone’s shadow like this. Her father was rich, a Foreman of the Gang, and she herself was destined for Training to Serve the Golden Goddess. Who were they? Nobodies. Just kids, playing at love. Hapiwer’s grandfather might be rich, but he himself was nothing. And Meretseger was the daughter of a faithless whore. She was less than nothing.

Henutmire rose and turned to go back down the hill toward the Village when she saw something that stopped her in her tracks. A man stood near the gate, looking about as if he had lost something. She recognized him immediately as the father of Hapiwer. Mery-Sekhmet, a successful man in his own right, and yet there were all those rumors about him. Rumors about women. Especially about Meretseger’s mother. Henutmire didn’t know their truth, but the sight of his broad figure in its shining white kilt and festival jewelry raised a horridly beguiling thought in her mind. What if Meretseger and Hapiwer were siblings? What if his father discovered them together? Would he tell them? Would they stop sneaking away like this, torturing her, if they knew? What if she told him where his son was, and with whom? No. She couldn’t.

Yes. She would. Before she had time to think, she was down the hill, her feet answering for her heart. She would tell him where his son was, and he would break up their romance. Then Meretseger would be free. Perhaps, in time, Meretseger would find a new love. Perhaps that love would even be Henutmire. She suppressed the swirl of longing that threatened to overwhelm her, concentrating on this first step. She must show Mery-Sekhmet the way. Later, she could set about wooing her beloved. Surely, with Hapiwer out of the picture, she might have a chance.

“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!

“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.

“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.

“The Mummy Case” Re-Read

As always, spoilers ahead. If you haven’t read this one yet, read at your own peril!

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

Another Amelia Peabody Mystery! The Mummy Case is the third novel by Elizabeth Peters starring that redoubtable Victorian Lady and her indomitable family. (I’m skipping writing about the second one because it’s not one of my favorites, and because I can, but I did read it.) In this episode of the Emerson Family Annals, Amelia and Emerson return to Egypt to begin excavating pyramids (Pyramids!) which are Amelia’s passion. However, for the first time they also bring their son, Walter Peabody Emerson who is about 6 or 7 at this time, to Egypt. Young Walter, more familiarly known as Ramses (for his “imperious countenenance and manner, so like that of the ancient Pharoah’s”) is something of a child-prodigy in many ways, and just as passionately interested in Egyptology as his parents.

So, the family returns to Egypt, where they meet there first check. Emerson is unable to procure the Pyramids of Dahshoor for his darling Peabody, and they are stuck with the nearby “pyramids” of Mazghunah. These are really little more than rubble, and the Emersons’ attention wanders. Ramses engages in a mysterious investigation of his own, Amelia roots about in various matters searching for the killer of an antiquities-dealer in Cairo, and Emerson continuously bothers the Director of Antiquities, who is excavating at Dahshoor. Woven in among these activities is the drama in the nearby village caused by a group of missionaries bent on converting the local Copts (Egyptian Christians) to a form of Prostenant Christianity. This greatly angers the local priest, for obvious reasons. But the leader is more than just your average missionary, he’s also a raging bag of douche-nozzles. Even his sister and student understand he’s a bit unhinged, but are unwilling to admit such to themselves. They manage to cause all sorts of troubles for the Emersons, even resorting to a certain criminal activity in order to satisfy the man’s insane world-view.

The important part of this book (from a series perspective) is less about the primary mystery but rather the introduction of two characters. The first is Ramses. He was technically introduced in the last book, but his role was very peripheral due to his extreme young age and his being left at home. This is the first time we really get a glimpse of his abilities and personality. There are several points of interest. First, his extreme intelligence, and beyond that his diabolically imaginitive way of approaching any difficulty. He manages to discover not only the hitherto undiscovered entrance to the famous Black Pyramid (at Dahshoor), but a cache of valuable jewels belonging to a princess. He also solves the mystery (though his contributions are not heeded by his parents) and saves his parents when they are thrown into the flooded burial chamber of the Pyramid by their foe. His intense focus on certain subjects to the exclusion of others and his tendency toward extreme arrogance and verbosity just manage to save him from the dreaded too-perfect Mary Sue. But his relationship with his mother is particularly interesting. She is one of the few who seems to see him as he actually is, and yet even she manages to underestimate him on a regular basis. For his part, she is the one person who he seems to truly be cautious, perhaps even a little afraid of, and yet he definitely feels a strong affection for her in his own saturnine way.

Amelia also encounters her series nemesis for the first time in this book. For it seems that the angry Coptic priest from the village was actually the cleverly-disguised Master Criminal! He is at the center of (most of) their troubles as he and his confederates attempt to rob the jewelry cash Master Ramses found in the Black Pyramid. After Ramses frees his parents from the depths of the pyramid into which the MC had thrown them, they unmask and confront the villain. Unfortunately, he escapes their attempt to bring him to justice and Amelia, at least, is determined to catch him in the future. *Insert ominous and portentious music here*

Next week, the saga continues with The Lion in the Valley, and the return of the Master Criminal!

“Crocodile on the Sandbank” Re-Read

So, here we are at the first Elizabeth Peters Memorial Re-read, with Crocodile on the Sandbank by the same. Crocodile was first published in 1975 by Dodd, Mead, and is the first in the Amelia Peabody Mystery series. It’s not Barbara Mertz’s (Elizabeth Peters’ real name) first fiction, but the Peabody mysteries have always been my favorite and so they’ll be what I re-read right now.
Fair warning for anyone who might not have read these yet, there will be spoilers ahead.

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

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Navigating Genealogies

Or “Stop naming your kids after your parents!”

So, I finally got a copy of my all-important research book (the one I was complaining of in the last post). I got it in about 2 weeks from the library’s Inter-Library-Loan program. Something I would have taken advantage of months ago if I’d known I wouldn’t be able to secure my own copy. It’s not a permanent solution, but at least I now have the book for a couple months, which is better than nothing. The book itself is a close examination of the genealogies of the workmen of Deir el-Medina for the 400 years the village was occupied, or at least as much of those genealogies as can be reconstructed. Needless to say, even with the organization and extensive indices in the book, they’re pretty confusing.

A major difficulty is the all-too-common practice of naming children after one or another grand-parent. After a couple generations this can get confusing. So, Neferhotep son of Khaemnun is the son of Neferhotep whose father was named, you guessed it, Khaemnun. Or at least, we think. There was no such thing as a birth/death register, so the reconstructions are constrained by whatever information can be gleaned by tomb and stella inscriptions, legal records, pay lists, and personal correspondence. Obviously, this leads to some difficulty with the less-well-known (i.e. less-wealthy) workmen and their families. The book uses lower-case roman numerals to differentiate between individuals (or possible individuals), but the numbering is based on which individual was encountered first, not which is the eldest. So Khaemnun (ii) is the grandfather of Khaemnun (i) and (iii) and (iv) are contemporary grandsons of (i).

And then there’s the issue of contemporary but unrelated people of the same name. Or similar names. For instance, there are at least two Amennakhte’s from two different families working during the time-period my novel is set. Unfortunately, both are important to the plot as well!

Confused yet?

Yea, me too.

Anyway, when I first began researching this book several drafts and more years than I care to think about, I figured out names and families of the primary characters. Now I’m working through the secondary characters, some of whom I didn’t even realize I’d need until I was halfway through this draft. It’s a slow process though, mainly because I may be willing to fudge facts in the interest of story, but I’m not willing to do so unless I know the facts first.

With that said, I’ve got to get back to it. The sooner I finish this, the sooner I can get back to wrangling with my draft.

“Mountains of the Pharaohs”

So, my most recent non-fiction read has been Mountains of the Pharaohs: The Untold Story of the Pyramid Builders, by Zahi Hawass. It took me a VERY long time to finish, though that’s no reflection on the quality of the book or the writing, but rather my ability to concentrate on scholarly concerns lately. But that’s another post.

I had never read anything by Zahi Hawass before, though naturally I’ve heard plenty about him. For the non-egyptologists, Dr. Hawass is the leader of the Egyptian Antiquities service (also known as Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities), a formidable scholar and excavator in his own right, and a bit of an iconoclast in the field. Anyway, I quite enjoyed the style of Mountains of the Pharaohs. It is a mix of scholarly and popular, with just a dash of historical fiction thrown in for spice. At the beginning of each chapter, Dr. Hawass paints a fictional “might-have-been” scenario relating to the topic of the chapter. So, Chapter 1 is about the reign of King Sneferu and the dawn of the 4th Dynasty. At the beginning is a little scenario written from Sneferu’s hypothetical point of view.

Mountains of the Pharaohs is about the development and building of the Ancient Egyptian pyramids, focusing most closely on the pyramids of Giza of course. It discusses 4th and 5th Dynasty history and archaeology. I’m not especially well-read in Old Kingdom history beyond the basics as my focus is on New Kingdom Egypt. So I was surprised and delighted at the depth and extent of new (relatively, as the book was published in 2006) archaeological evidence dating from this period. There is even a surprising amount of evidence from recently excavated workmen’s villages and associated cemeteries dating from the period. This is particularly exciting because it gives greater insight not only into the building of the pyramids themselves, but also into the lives of the men who built them, and their families.

Dr. Hawass also spends some time dispelling certain popular myths, such as the pyramids were built primarily by slave-labor, or by aliens, and replaces those myths with the facts we know for sure, and those we can extrapolate given the current evidence (i.e. educated guesses). I quite enjoyed these sections, as well as giving me another authority to quote in debunking those persistent myths which are the exasperation of egyptologists of all stripes.

I definitely highly recommend this book for anyone even casually interested in the history of the Old Kingdom and the pyramids specifically. The style is accessible to scholars and non-scholars alike.

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