“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 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.

“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 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.

“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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“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 »