Nefertiti — Michelle Moran

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 youNefertiti bookr 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.


  1. eccentricyoruba says

    i never finished reading this book. i stopped halfway through as i was not really drawn into it. i’m personally not entirely confident regarding the ethnical diversity in Nefertiti, i seem to have been the only one who noticed that several characters had blue or green eyes. this to me sort of eliminated the ethnic diversity. yes the characters have varying skin tones and that’s about it. i guess i’m just a little sensitive to the Esmerelda eyes syndrome…

  2. Melinda says

    Hey, sorry for the nitpicky comment…

    I have’t read the book, so I don’t know the details or what exactly you meant in No. 1: that Egypt is both ethnically diverse AND racially and/or color-wise, or that Egypt is ethnically diverse, shown by characters of different colors. In case it was the latter, ethnicity and color (or race) aren’t the same! Two people can be of the same ethnicity but of different races (e.g., Latin@s can be black, brown, white, etc.); additionally, people can be of the same race but of different colors (e.g., dark-skinned, light-skinned, etc.).

  3. Maria V. says

    Hi Melinda!

    I don’t think I blurred the concepts together, since the ancient Egyptians wouldn’t have been using the same concept of race we are — that’s actually a pretty recent invention. I guess I could have used nationalities, since that seems to be how the ancient Greeks divvied up peoples and appearances, but TBH besides knowing that race is more recent (I think it first appears in the Spanish as la raza about 500 yrs ago? I’m using Bernasconi here) I’m not sure how the ancient Egyptians thought of it. Your ethnic identity mattered (like whether you were Hebrew or were of a particular type of descent, like being Hittite or Nubian) and your national identity mattered (Hatti, Nubia, and Assyria are all linked to Egypt in complicated conquest-y relationships).

    This got really long and I had to reread your question to make sure I understood it. Anyways — basically what I’m saying is that I used ethnicity because that seems the concept closest to what they’d’ve used. While I was using that to point to appearances associated with race, I don’t think it’s meant to show racial differences or whatever — I think that since the nation is multi-ethnic and multi-national, instead of there being one phenotype of Egyptian, there are several. So Nefertiti teases Mutny for being darker skinned, but she’s never like, This is my black sister, who is different from me because I’m brown.

  4. Maria V. says

    I don’t even think it’s like the Brazilian system, where there are a variety of shades that reflect Brazil’s history of conquest, since in the census those shades get naturalized into specific identities… I really can’t think of a modern equivalent.

  5. Maria V. says

    Maybe it was Esmeralda eyes syndrome… but I figured that since they were so inbred that members of the nobility would have random ass recessive traits.

    Plus, my family is black and Latino (Venezuelan) and we have several brown skinned people with really startling green or blue eyes.

  6. eccentricyoruba says

    You do have a point. I guess I did not consider they were supposed to be a mixed people. My friend recommended Nefertiti to me saying that it potryed ancient Egyptians ‘realistically’ and that the characters were ‘black’. She must have picked on the varying skin tones or maybe it was the cover (the British edition shows a light-skinned woman). My friend basically said the cover was misleading and all the characters were black. I read the book with this in mind and thus automatically thought ‘Esmeralda syndrome’ when the eyes were mentioned.

    I’m African and have seen several Africans with green eyes so that was believeable to me. It was the blue eyes that threw me off. Anyway I’m beginning to think I over-reacted.

  7. Maria V. says

    They are! They’re not primitives, and Egypt’s discussed like the major world power it is, instead of the primitive, isolated desert land it’s often imagined to be. Re: blackness: I imagined that Nefertiti looked like Vanessa Williams (but with dark eyes)…

    You know, some good fiction set in Africa has been written by Nnedi Okorafor (*The Shadow Speaker* was briefly reviewed by me here: and Nancy Farmer (my neice recommends *The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm*, but I’ve never read it).

    I’ll keep my eyes open for other GOOD young adult fic set in Africa.

  8. eccentricyoruba says

    haha i’ve accepted that the Egyptians had their own category ethnically. i don’t think they were black though i know some ppl argue that they were Caucasian and that i don’t accept either. i like to think, they looked like Berbers who are an African ethnic group found in the North and North-West.

    ah i read The Ear, The Eye and the Arm when i was in high school! and i also own all Nnedi Okorafor’s books. there are some good books set in Africa out there but i’m yet to come across like precolonial historical fiction.

    thanks for offering :)

  9. Zahra says

    Elizabeth Wein has a YA series set in 6th-century Ethiopia; it actually starts off as an Arthurian series set in Britain, but in the second book one of the main white British characters goes to Aksum, and the three books that follow seem to center on a dark-skinned Aksumite boy (who may have some white ancestry). I’ve only read the first so far (which is excellent on the writing and gender fronts), so I can’t say whether the following books fall into white-people-in-African tropes.

    The books are:
    The Winter Prince
    A Coalition of Lions
    The Sunbird
    The Lion Hunter
    The Empty Kingdom

    The Aksumite Empire was pretty awesome, btw, and has been pretty thoroughly excluded from popular culture because (IMO) white people have trouble conceiving of a major African empire that was Christian centuries before Europe was. So I was excited to see books set there.

  10. Zahra says

    I don’t know how true it was in the Pharoanic period, but in the Hellenistic and Ptolemaic eras language was a very big marker of ethnicity in Egypt–as in many parts of the ancient world–and there were several distinct tongues spoken in Egypt, even leaving aside Greek (like, say, the language of the Troglodytes).

  11. eccentricyoruba says

    Thanks for the link Maria! I’m definitely interested in Stephen Barnes’ work.

    @Zahra thanks for the recommendations!!! And regarding the Aksumite kingdom’s general exclusion from popular culture, I believe this tends to happen a lot with most ancient African kingdoms (I guess Egypt is an exception but then again some people don’t really think of it as an African kingdom). I can say even among most Africans I know there is hardly any knowledge of our history. There seems to be a general acceptance that the histories worthy of interest are only Western. I call that colonial mentality but it is possible Western popular culture takes this point of view as well. Hope I’m making sense here. It’s a bit frustrating for me as I remember being 1 of the 6 people who took history in my Nigerian high school.

  12. Zahra says


    You’re very welcome! And yes, you’re definitely right about the Aksum amnesia falling into the more general Africa-has-no-history-before-white-people-except-Egypt-and-really-they-were-practically-Greek tropes. I’m sure it is the colonial mentality. But I studied Christian history, where the conversion of Ethiopia is a big thing (to say nothing of its importance for the cultural context of early Islam), and yet it still wasn’t talked about, so for me it always also has shades of the conflation of Christian history with European history (which I’ve run into elsewhere).

    Incidentally, both Steven Barnes’s fantasy series and the one written by his wife, Tananarive Due, make ancient Ethiopia central to their mythology. Due’s series is about a group of Ethiopian immortals, and is usually shelved in horror–but given that the characters are so old I think there’s some history and historical settings in them. Again, I haven’t read them (yet), but the books are My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, and Blood Colony.

  13. SunlessNick says

    Due’s series is about a group of Ethiopian immortals, and is usually shelved in horror–but given that the characters are so old I think there’s some history and historical settings in them. Again, I haven’t read them (yet), but the books are My Soul to Keep, The Living Blood, and Blood Colony.

    You made me want, oh yes you did. Bookshop visit in the near future for me.

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