“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 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!