This compelling young adult novel focuses on Nefertiti and her sister Mutny. Nefertiti is destined to become the Chief Wife of Pharaoh — her family is centered around her and her campaign for power, since she’s at once a pawn (her role as Pharaoh’s wife helps establish her father politically) and a major player (her machinations at court can make or break her family’s fortunes). Her sister Mutnodjmet is an unwilling, bitter participant; Nefertiti’s power-plays nearly cost Mutny the chance to make her own family. It seems like she’s doomed to be the Sister of the King’s Chief Wife (a handmaiden in all but name) for the rest of her life. She profoundly wishes she could be free of this title, this court, and its intrigues.
Well, sometimes you get your wish — and it really sucks. Mutny’s escape highlights exactly how far the Egyptian court has fallen. She runs away with a dishonored soldier who’d been imprisoned by a Pharaoh afraid of the power of the army. Their life together is happy… until Mutny is once again pulled into her sister’s orbit as Nefertiti goes for total bossdom — she wants to be co-regent with her husband, a Pharaoh in her own right. As Nefertiti: A Novel unfolds, Moran explores the murderous side of sibling rival and the legacies of old fraternal/sororal injuries during the reign of a heretic Egyptian king. Ahkenaten and his queen Nefertiti take Egypt by storm, throwing down and raising up old gods as needed. Nefertiti and her family are constantly scheming against Kiya, the king’s second wife and the mother of his male heir. Dowager Queen Tiye (Nefertiti’s aunt) and Vizier Ay (her father) try to run the country from behind the scenes, as the Pharaoh goes more and more insane with power. Mutny is along for a ride she hates, trying to navigate in a court whose constant duplicity makes her sick at heart.
Things I liked:
1. Egypt is portrayed as an ethnically diverse country. Nefertiti, Mutny, Nakhtmin, and others are all various shades of brown. Mutny, for example, is described as being fairly dark skinned. Nefertiti is more bronze. NICE!
2. People have sex — and it’s important and not bad. Where the Pharaoh spends the night is a big frikkin’ deal — you have to do him to have his heirs, after all. Kiya and Nefertiti cannily try to manipulate him into spending more nights with them. Kiya, for example, writes poetry with him. They read to each other, in contrast to Nefertiti, who talks about architecture, the gods, and politics. This isn’t set up as some sort of essentialized female competition — it’s more another arena of play and power in the context of court politics. Plus, when Mutny finally gets her groove on, there are some real consequences. The Sister of the King’s Chief Wife is not free to give her body or her heart willy nilly.
3. Mutny’s an herbalist. The use of various herbs in women’s reproductive health (and the reasons they’d choose to go to a female herbalist versus a physician) are nicely illustrated, as Mutny distributes raspberry leaf for cramps, safflower oil for hair loss, and acacia for herbal abortions.
4. There are a couple of vividly realized female characters – these include Nefertiti herself, Mutny, Ipu (Mutny’s body servant), and Queen Tiye. Unfortunately, Kiya falls out of the equation; her father, Panhesi is set up as the main antagonist. Also, while Ipu, Mutny, and Queen Tiye all talk about herbs and other things together, the majority of their conversation centers on court politics, which center on men. At least they’re not into the men as men, more as symbols or road blocks to power.
Moran has a great Q&A [since removed] on her site that talks about the decisions she made in writing this novel.