"Thutmose's full attention was on his second wife; he helped Mutnofret fix her perfumed wax cone to her lovely gleaming wig, touched her soft hand, told her she was beautiful, so beautiful.
Ahmose's belly soured.
The night dragged on forever. Mutnofret was a perfect woman, graceful and winsome, smiling her approval at all the performers, brushing her arm now and then against Thutmose's, her cheek against his shoulder. Thutmose was not unmindful of Ahmose, to be sure; he offered every dish to her first, asked her opinion of each performance. But all his attentions had the flavor of duty, not the adoration she craved.
Is this to be my marriage then? A dutiful husband who cannot take his eyes off my sister, even for a moment?
-- excerpt from The Sehkmet Bed, by Lavender Ironside
Good Egyptian historical fiction is hard to find. I don't understand why, because ancient Egypt has everything: beautiful landscapes, unique religious customs, fascinating societal structures, and historical figures with plenty of gaps in their recorded lives to allow for some creative license.
Not much is known about the real Ahmose. We know she was the mother of Hatshepsut, one of Egypt's most famous queens and Pharaohs. Her own parentage is unknown, but it's likely that she and Mutnofret were at least half-sisters. Lavender Ironside (best pen name ever) chooses to take advantage of this, and the result is the most real, bittersweet depiction of sibling rivalry I've ever seen.
Ahmose is 13, intelligent, pious, and a bit naive. Mutnofret is 16, worldly, cunning, and wild. Both are shocked when, after the death of their father, it is Ahmose who is declared queen. She becomes Great Royal Wife to the new pharaoh, a title Mutnofret had prepared her entire life to have, while the elder sister is instead given the lesser title of second wife. The immediate consequences are, of course, a suddenly much more strained relationship between the two women; however, that's not what pushes them to the breaking point. Egypt needs an heir. If either woman can provide their country with its future pharaoh, it can not only determine their status in the palace, but also affect the very course of Egypt's history.
Herein lies Ahmose's disadvantage. Unlike her sister, she does not yet have the body of a woman, or the feminine wiles to compensate. And while Thutmose, the pharaoh, is an entirely likeable Prince Charming, he is also a man of flesh and blood.
First of all, being romantic rivals with your own sibling must be one of the worst experiences in the world. But when you know that the outcome carries political weight, so much weight that the fate of an entire nation relies on it? The pressure has to be unreal.
As intriguing as it is, the premise alone wasn't what made this the most compelling story I've read this year. Ironside could have easily told it so Ahmose was the long-suffering good girl, with Mutnofret as no more than a sort of wicked step-sister type. She didn't do that. As much as I rooted for Ahmose, she makes some pretty sketchy decisions to maintain her position, and as an older sister myself, I keenly felt Mutnofret's pain at being usurped by a twiggy young girl who was never supposed to be a threat.
Because of this, it didn't matter that, as historical fiction, I already knew what happens at the end. That's not the only thing at stake. Motivations are often difficult to parse out in this book, but one thing is clear: both women genuinely love this man, and they care about each other too. Watching them struggle to preserve a once-healthy family relationship while at the same time look out for themselves romantically and politically was endlessly captivating.
It's extremely rare nowadays for me to find a book I have to fight to put down. In addition, I honestly find most love triangles irritating. What made this book different was the depth and the realness of the characters. When I wasn't reading about them, I was thinking about them. Months later, I'm still thinking about them. I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me do that, and most of them are not recent reads.
As with all books there were a few flaws. Frankly, I barely noticed them at the time because I was reading too fast, which is why The Sehkmet Bed is my Most Compelling Book of 2012.