The Heretic Queen — Michelle Moran

The Heretic Queen: A Novel is the sequel to Moran’s Nefertiti, which I reviewed earlier this week. In it, Moran picks up on the life of Mutny’s child, Nefertari, who’s trying to make a place in a court seeking to oust any reminders of the old regime. Nefertiti’s legacy has been pretty much destroyed, and nobody dares to speak Ahkenaten’s name. Nefertari is only tolerated because Mutny was forcibly wed to a usurper to the throne seeking to legitimate his regency. Now that she’s a woman, the forces of the court (particularly Henuttawy, high priestess of Isis, and Iset, Henuttawy’s unlucky choice for the role of Pharoah’s wife) are trying to force her out. Her only allies are her old nurse, Merit (BFF and body servant to the former queen, Nefertiti), Woserit (HIGH PRIESTESS OF HATHOR, what what), and Paser (Nefertari’s tutor and a young vizier). These four must marshal their resources to re-make Nefertari into a beautiful, educated queen — one capable of keeping Henuttawy from making the priestesses of Isis the most powerful priestesses in town.Plus, Nefertari’s wicked in love with Ramesses, the Pharaoh, so she’s totally jazzed about getting to marry him.

There were a couple of things I liked.

1. Unlike The Riven Kingdom, there’s a REASON you want Nefertari to win. This reason goes beyond her love for Ramesses. She’s simply more qualified to rule than Iset. She’s got an amazing command of languages, she’s loyal and brave, and she’s savvy enough about people to handle hearing her subjects’ petitions in the Great Hall. Plus, she’s willing to work hard, such as by volunteering to help manage grain supplies during a famine. While the love affair between Ramesses and Nefertari was pretty obvious, HER love for Egypt and its people also shown throughout the text.

2. Like Nefertiti, there’s consistent and awesome historical details, such as the problem-solving of famines, the references to the Trojan War, and constant duking it out over Kadesh and Mitanni.

3. The importance of family is an ongoing theme, but it’s not essentialized into women’s roles. Iset and Nefertari are both working to protect their families. Iset is doing so by being beautiful and capturing the Pharaoh’s heart. Nefertari is doing so by etching her name (and therefore the name of her children and her ancestors) into Egypt’s history. This reflects her belief that the gods need to know your name before they can hear your prayers in the Afterlife.

There was something that did kinda bug me, especially in light of the discussion going on the earlier Nefertiti post. It seemed like a lot of the brown people disappeared from this court. Nefertari takes after her aunt, so she’s light-skinned with green eyes from her mother. This actually really irritated me, though, since she’s still some sort of beige, and there’s at least one passage where she’s described as being “soft and white and warm.” Ramesses and his children are red-haired and bronze (which is historical fact — his mummy had red hair). The other characters didn’t receive as much attention in terms of their physical appearance, but it felt like the court had somehow gotten really bleached. I can’t tell if this is because Nefertari is more obviously based on the author, since they’re both into histories and languages, or what. It did, however, disappoint me, since ancient Egypt was, as far as I know, ethnically and racially diverse in its nobility til the Greeks rolled up.

I also didn’t like the characterization of Henuttawy. Kiya and Panahesi, while EVIL, are at least occassionally sympathetic. Kiya struggles to win the love of Ahkenaten, and is really worried about the fate of her son. Panahesi,, while being a snake, at least has his family’s best interest at heart. Henuttawy is not only working for an order she herself has corrupted, she’s also doing so specifically to hurt her sister Woserit. She’s catty and really one-dimensional. Also, her using her sexuality to gain power was dumb and a sign of her bad character, but Nefertari doing the same was a sign of true love and maturity… in part because she was married and only giving her special cookies to one man.

This was obviously an engrossing book, since I read it so fast. However, one of the reasons this was such a quick read is that it’s also uncomplicated in a way that Nefertiti is not. The villains are simple baddies, and there’s no reason to think further about their motivations than that. I read on Moran’s site that she wasn’t sure that her publishers would want a sequel, and that’s why some of the dates are off. I wonder if that’s why some of the writing is off — all in all, this felt a bit more slapped together than Nefertiti.

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