“The Falcon at the Portal” Re-Read

Spoilery spoiler-words ahead, don’t read if you haven’t read the books.

The Falcon at the Portal by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal is set during the 1911-1912 excavation season, and is really the set-up for the next book in the series. There are some fairly important events, chronologically speaking in the series, but it finishes on rather a loose end. There’s no real sense of resolution, despite the obvious villain being defeated and the danger removed.

The three most important developments of the book are David’s interest and involvement in the nationalist movement of Egypt, Ramses and Nefret finally admitting their love to each other (and the immediate tearing apart of there relationship by outside forces), and the advent of Sennia into the Emerson family.

David’s dedication to the cause of liberation for Egypt is hardly surprising given the character and the time period. He is a gentle soul, not really the sort for revolution, but he is also a man of strong moral character (as Amelia would say), intelligence, and some little pride. The patronizing, paternalistic tone of the British Colonial machine would chafe anyone, and David is no exception. He becomes involved with a movement, led by a man named Wardani, a charismatic and mysterious revolutionary. This involvement leads to some difficulties and brief doubts about David by the rest of the family.

Another bombshell is Ramses and Nefret’s love-story. For several books now, Ramses has been pining quietly for love of Nefret, who has been apparently un-aware of the depth of his feeling for her. Near the middle of the book, she finally discovers his desire and realizes she is of the same mind. They spend the night together, and determine to be married. Naturally, before they can tell anyone of this revelation, a bombshell is dropped on the family, sending Nefret running from Ramses in revulsion (believing him a rapist) and straight into the arms of another man whom she promptly marries in a fit of pique.

What is this bombshell you ask? Well, the advent of a new member of the family, Sennia. She is about 2 or 3 years old, the daughter of a teenaged Egyptian prostitute from the Red Blind District of Cairo. And she has the features (particularly the eyes) of Amelia. The girl’s pimp attempts to blackmail the family by accusing Ramses of fathering the child and abandoning her to the life of a prostitute like her mother. Amelia and the Professor toss him out, knowing Ramses would never do such a thing, and that Amelia’s scurrilous nephew Percy (who also lives in Egypt now) very much would. Naturally, the child, Sennia, is promptly added to the family, to be brought up by Amelia and Emerson (and Ramses and Nefret too).

Unfortunately, Nefret’s lack of faith in Ramses and her hasty marriage precipitates the family into their final show-down with the criminal they have been tracking for the whole book. She manages to marry the villain, though it’s only partially her fault. She was set up by the aforesaid scurrilous nephew, though only Ramses suspects Percey’s involvement. This setback  in the course of the Ramses and Nefret romance is incredibly frustrating as a reader. They were finally going to find happiness.

Rather than reading this one, I actually listened to it on audio-book, narrated by the amazing Barbara Rosenblat. I actually was first introduced to the Amelia Peabody series via audiobook, and Barbara’s voice has always been the voice of Amelia in my head. It was rather lovely to listen to it again, almost nostalgic in a way. Besides, she really is talented as a reader, giving each voice its own distinct pitch, timber, and intonation. She even manages to differentiate between the tone of the main point of view (Amelia’s) and the two subsidiary points-of-view (Manuscript H/Ramses and Letter Collection B/Nefret). This is noticeable, as The Falcon at the Portal has far more of Ramses and Nefret’s POV than any previous books, perhaps even half of it being not narrated by Amelia. As much as I adore Amelia, I do enjoy seeing her through Ramses eyes, and Nefret’s letters to her friend Lia are always entertaining (and in a few instances extremely poignant). The letter she writes between the time she and Ramses become lovers and when she discovers Ramses’ presumed guilt is gut-wrenching in the intensity of her love and happiness in that moment, especially in light of the disaster I know is approaching in a few short pages.

Another thing that happens in this book  (and really becomes a major plot device for all succeeding books)  is Amelia dreams of Abdullah. She dreams of him many times, usually whenever she is in doubt or difficulty. Always they stand on the cliffs overlooking the Valley of the Kings and Luxor just at dawn, and he always looks very young. He passes on mysterious hints and reassurances to her, most of which are proved true in succeeding pages. The dreams are sort of a interesting codicil into Abdullah and Amelia’s relationship, as well as another development of Amelia’s character. She is not exactly the superstitious sort, being particularly practical and skeptical. But she believes fervently in these dreams, and they bring her some comfort from her present difficulties, as well as allowing her a glimpse of her friend and the man who laid down his life for her (which does tend to forge a special bond).

The title of the book is taken from the final dream, in which Abdullah warns of troubled times ahead (detailed in the next two books) but says that “in the end, the clouds will blow away and the falcon (meaning Harakhte the Horus of the Dawn) will fly through the portal of the dawn.” It’s sort of an egyptianized variation of the saying “it is darkest just before the dawn.”

“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 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

Read the rest of this entry »

A Legacy of Inspiration

Today, my issue of the Winter KMT magazine (an international, popular Egyptology periodical) arrived. Glancing casually at the cover on my way to the kitchen, I was startled and horrified to see a cover-story “Remembering Dr Barbara Mertz”.

KMT Volume 24 Number 4

KMT Volume 24 Number 4

This is the sort of thing written about someone who is dead, but I hadn’t heard anything about her even being ill. Flipping through to the story, I discovered she passed away quietly on August 8th of this year. (Later, I found more information on her official website.)

I should explain. Barbara Mertz is perhaps more commonly known as Elizabeth Peters, the author of the Amelia Peabody Mystery* series (she also wrote under the name Barbara Michaels). When I was about 11 or 12 my mother discovered them at the library, and rather astutetly predicted I would enjoy them. I did. Hugely. I read them all, then read them again. I became so fascinated that I started to read about Ancient Egypt. Later, when I’d gotten to college and was casting about for a new direction, I remembered my fascination with Egypt and decided to change my major to Classics (the only department with any Egyptology classes at all).  And the rest is history. I studied for two degreees, discovered writing and began to write about Ancient Egypt, began to dream of working in the field of Egyptology. Through it all, I read Mertz’s books, seeking out her nonfiction and fiction alike. I read about her life, and took comfort from her unique path through the field of Egyptology. In graduate school, I took my courage in both hands and wrote her a fan letter. This is not the sort of thing I’m prone to doing, but I’m so very grateful I did when I had the  chance. I’m most especially grateful that she wrote back to me, in her own hand, a short postcard thanking me for my kind words, congratulating me on my success so far and wishing me luck in my continued endeavors. MertzPostcard It’s one of my most treasured possessions, and is hanging even now on my note-board above my desk.

So how do you write about someone who touched your life in such a profound way, yet you never met, nor even spoke to them? How do you deal with grief for a stranger that is deeper than the grief we feel for humans in general? For me, I’ll be re-reading all of my favorite books (and more than likely blogging about them) from her body of work. After all, it was her stories which inspired me so profoundly, so it only makes sense to immerse myself in them again to mark her passing. And one of the things she inspired me to do was write, so I’ll write about her work.

 

*I’ve written about these books, and the eponymous character, before.

Favorite Fictional Characters?

Saw the question in an interview and it made me think.

First, apologies for the recent blog silence. This weekend we celebrated my grandmother’s life with tears, laughter, music and song. Consequently it has been a hectic and family-filled weekend. Now it is over though, and I can now try to catch back up to my Nanowrimo word-count. My characters are feeling a bit neglected. Before I do that however, I thought I’d talk a bit about my favorite fictional characters from other writers. It felt appropriate to Grandma’s memory, since she was such an amazing character herself.

Who are my favorite fiction characters? Read the rest of this entry »

“A River in the Sky”

This is definitely not a book review.

First the disclaimer. This blog post will almost certainly not be a completely unbiased examination of the book, A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters. Simply put, the author is my personal idol, a woman whose life and work has not only touched me, but in fact changed and guided my life in very profound ways. Therefore, I do not claim to present an unbiased opinion on the book, only that it is my own opinion. The book itself, for those who do not yet know is the latest book in Elizabeth Peters’ wonderful Amelia Peabody Series. Elizabeth Peters is one of the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz, Egyptologist and Author. This particular volume deviates somewhat from the rest of the series, in that it is set in Palestine (primarily Jerusalem and Samaria) rather than Egypt, and also interestingly, this appears to be only the second time Ms. Peters has written a book out of order*. This one is set during the 1910 excavation season (currently, the latest date of the Peabody books is set during the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922) which backtracks it back seven books. At this point, I must put up the obligatory spoiler warning. If you have not read the book and/or do not wish to read spoilers, do NOT read below the cut! Read the rest of this entry »

Academia and Fiction

Some thoughts on straddling the divide between fiction and academia.

I was recently reading an article by Richard P. Martin* of Stanford University titled Words Alone Are Certain Good(s): Philology and Greek Material Culture. It is basically a warning article by a philologist to other philologists not to forget the importance of archeology and material culture in understanding the works studied in philology.

At one point, he talks about interaction between archaeologists, folklorists, and Ancient Greek historians, as well as philologists. He notes that historians of Greece often work on excavations or in archaeological schools in Athens at some point in their careers, thus having a close association with the material culture of their field. He then goes on to note that philologists rarely have such close contact. And this got me to thinking of a specific character from Elizabeth Peter’s ‘Amelia Peabody’ series. Read the rest of this entry »