“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.”

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.

Even the Best Books Aren’t Perfect

Cordelia’s Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold is one of about half a dozen “comfort reads” that I return to repeatedly. It’s a sort of prequel to her space opera series, The Vorkosigan Saga. Really two books combined, it details how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met, married, and the events surrounding his conception and birth which heavily influenced who he was in the series. But much as I love Miles, I don’t read it for him. I read it for Cordelia, Miles’ mother. She’s an amazing woman, one of those characters who help me define who I want to be in life. She falls in love with an “enemy”, leaves her planet and family to be with him on his (to her) backward and barbaric planet, and is dropped into the highest levels of politics, civil war, intrigue and assassination. Through it all she maintains an outward calm, and dispenses wisdom, kindness, and common sense to all those around her. All while being completely bad-ass, and without being even a little bit Mary Sueish.

But as much as I love, adore, and continually re-read this book (and many other Bujold books too), there are a couple of problems with it. There are two big ones. The first is a lack of racial diversity, but that’s not really what I want to talk about today (it’s an important point, and worth noting, but not one I usually feel qualified to write about. I’m sure others have written about it somewhere on the web however).

The other problem is also an issue of representation, but it’s an issue of sexuality not race. There’s a scene where a political enemy of Cordelia’s husband Aral is trying to blow up their (very happy) marriage by telling her “scandalous” things about his sexual history. The enemy misjudges his target pretty thoroughly, as what he (and much of the Barrayaran society) considers scandalous, Cordelia considers entirely normal and perfectly logical. Particularly in the realm of sexuality and gender roles. The whole scene is a couple of pages, and it’s generally clever and wonderful and satisfying in that “ha! take THAT you unmitigated ass” sort of way. But right in the middle is this:

He paused, watching Aral, watching her watch Aral. One corner of his mouth crooked up, then the quirk vanished in a thoughtful pursing of his lips. “He’s bisexual, you know.” He took a delicate sip of his wine.
“Was bisexual,” she corrected absently, looking fondly across the room. “Now he’s monogamous.”

And there’s the problem. Here, written bluntly out in black and white is an incredibly bi-phobic statement, one which is often used by narrow-minded people of all sexualities to justify to themselves why they won’t date/marry/love bisexuals, no matter how delightful the person might be otherwise. They want a monogamous commitment. Bi people aren’t capable of commitment, or we’re greedy, or we’re born cheaters, or whatever.

This is all complete tripe of course. Bisexuals are monogamous, non-monogamous, equally attracted to both sexes, or attracted to a whole range along the gender spectrum, or mostly attracted to one gender with the occasional crush on the other, or sometimes even asexual (though then they’re usually referred to as bi-romantic I believe). We can be bisexual without ever experiencing a relationship or a sexual encounter with one whole gender. There is no one way to be bisexual. But the important point here is, bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. Lemme repeat: Bisexuality and monogamy are not mutually exclusive. 

Nor is bisexuality something you “used to be.” Bisexuality is not a “phase” we grow out of. This myth stems from the tendency for lesbians and gays to identify as bisexuals on their way to their true sexual identity in an effort to soften the “blow” to those around them. But they’re no more bisexuals than closeted LGBT people are straight. And their misappropriation of the label doesn’t negate the truth of it as an identity for actual bisexuals, and I sure wish people would quit trying to use them as examples to prove it’s all a phase and we’ll grow out of it, one way or another. Thank you, but no I won’t.

One of the things that makes me saddest about this little bit of ignorance (for, given her writing on other topics relating to sexuality I do believe this bi-phobia grows from ignorance on the author’s part, not malice) is what a missed opportunity it is. Here Bujold has set up a major supporting character from a very popular SF series, and he’s bisexual. But also happily married, successful, and his life is not ABOUT bisexuality. It informs his past, which has repercussions on his life during the course of this book. But with this one line, she completely negates all the good that was possible. She blatantly states that his bisexuality was a “phase” and he no longer “counts” as bisexual because he’s monogamously married to a woman. It’s such a tiny mistake to have made, and yet so very damaging to a certain portion of her readers.

This is one of the things that terrifies me so much about writing. If one of my favorite authors — a woman whose writing I admire and wish to emulate and a multi-award winning novelist — can make such an egregious mistake in representation, then what’s to keep me from making one just as bad? I want to write good representation in the characters I create, but I often feel paralyzed by doubt. I read and read and read stories and theory and advice by those whose lived realities I would like to reflect in some way in my fiction. And yet it is still possible, nay even probable, that I’ll make a misstep as grievous as this one, or perhaps even worse.

Writing is a scary business, especially when writing from a perspective not your own.

When a Favorite Author Lets You Down

We (Readers) all have favorite authors, those people who wrote the books which speak to our soul or draw us in until we couldn’t put the book down even if our hair was on fire, or simply kept us entertained for the desired amount of time. Within that subset of authors, most of us have a further subset which could roughly be titled “Beg, Borrow and Read Everything They Publish.” Even if we have books by the authors on that list which we really didn’t care for, we’ll still eagerly await a new book, with the reasonable certainty that it’ll be a new favorite by the last chapter. After all, maybe they let us down once (or even more than that) but the statistics show that we just really click with their writing.

Every once in a while though, a Read Everything Favorite Author doesn’t just put out a book that you didn’t care for. Sometimes they really let you down, and the book is just objectively bad. Poorly written, poorly plotted, disappointing at the end, and generally less than enjoyable. The sort of book that leaves me thinking “I can’t believe I skipped sleep for this” when I put it down. This sort of thing is a risk with any book of course, but with a favorite author it’s usually less of a risk, so it feels like a bigger betrayal when it happens. Of course, because this is an All Time Favorite Author, I can always find an excuse (They’ve been writing that particular series a long time, they’ve had personal difficulties lately, they’re mid-career and not getting as stringent editing now, etc). I will far more easily forgive an unenjoyable reading experience from an author I’m already a fan of than from one I’ve never read before, or only read once or twice.

I recently had this experience. I read a book by a Favorite Author, set in one of the aforementioned Author’s worlds which I generally greatly enjoy. It is one I’d tried to read before (and thought I actually had, but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t, or else I blocked the memory of it because it was so bad). There were so many bad aspects. Plot contradictions within the same chapter. Sloppy editing, such as the use of “actually” twice in the same sentence. But the biggest let-down was the ending, which was definitely rushed and unsatisfactory. But at the end, all I could feel was sad. Sad that something I had looked forward to was such a disappointment. Sad that the book was attached to the name of an author who I love and respect, and someone might judge her entire body of work on said book. Sad that characters I enjoyed were shackled into such a poor frame.

Disappointment is a risk whenever you pick up any book. This uncertainty may be discouraging to some who steer clear of reading unfamiliar books entirely. I’ve certainly felt the pull of the “safe” route. But when we do that, we also miss the chance to be transported and transformed by a great new book. Books are a bit like roads that way. There’s no knowing where they’ll sweep you off to. But for all that, the wise Hobbit steps through the door anyhow.

“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 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 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 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.

“Flight Behavior”

'Flight Behavior' by Barbara Kingsolver

‘Flight Behavior’ by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, Flight Behavior, is as excellent as all her other works. I first heard about it some time ago when she did an interview about it on NPR (on Fresh Air I think, but I forget exactly). When I ran across it in my local indie-bookstore I had to pick it up, and I finally got around to reading it about two weeks ago. I can’t express how much I loved this book. It spoke to my soul, and I have never identified quite so strongly with a character as I did with Dellarobia. At a glance, our lives have actually been very different, but there are a lot of similarities between her life after children and mine. Neither of us regret our children, and even in a way chose our children. But we still feel a bit trapped by them, and that our intelligence is being under-utilized. We’re even the exact same age and live with difficult in-laws. I’ve found very different strategies for assuaging those feelings than Dellarobia did, but I sympathized nonetheless.

Flight Behavior has a relatively simple plot, with incredibly unsimple characters and emotions depicted. Dellarobia is a wife and mother in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains. She married her senior year of high school because she became pregnant, then quickly lost the baby. She and her husband eventually had two more, despite finding themselves totally ill-suited to each other, and settled down in a little house on the edge of his family’s land to be farmers. Dellarobia was a bright, college-bound girl from a poor area that traditionally did not encourage too much education, and she is desperately unhappy but doesn’t know why or what to do about it. Into this mess fly the butterflies, the entire population of Monarch butterflies who usually migrate to Mexico for the winter but have settled in the mountains behind Dellarobia’s home instead. Some call the beautiful mountain-valley full of swirling orange wings a miracle. Others raise it up as a rallying-cry against global-warming. And the foremost expert on Monarch butterflies comes to camp in Dellarobia’s back yard while he studies the phenomenon, along with his graduate students. He is looking for answers and mourning the almost certain destruction of the species by the harsh climate here, and in the process he turns Dellarobia’s life upside down by the very simple expedient of recognizing her intelligence and putting it to work. The transformative power of work suited to a person’s interests and intelligence is illustrated beautifully. Eventually, most of her problems are worked out for the better with the promise of more good things to come.

The ending is bitter-sweet, but it is exactly the end that Dellarobia’s character demands and deserves. It’s also a fairly unusual ending in media, with a message of independence and that it’s never too late to follow your dreams, even if you are a woman. The sympathetic portrait of a stay-at-home mom’s trials and tribulations resonated with my own experiences. And as always, Kingsolver’s prose were compelling in a way usually reserved for poetry. But what really kept me coming back was the depth and range of emotions evoked in both the characters and myself as a character. Kingsolver raised everything from sympathy to outrage to despair to joy and especially love. She plays the reader’s feelings like a well-tuned piano and digs into the complexity of her characters to do it.

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