“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.”

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“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.