Friday, December 14, 2012

Most Compelling Book of 2012: The Sehkmet Bed

"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.

4 comments:

  1. It's a good review if it makes me want to read about an Egyptian love triangle!

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    1. For $2.99 for the Kindle edition it's totally worth branching out. I've noticed that I'm much more willing to read outside my usual genres when I'm browsing the Kindle store, as opposed to hardcovers or even some paperbacks, where I have to be reasonably certain I'm going to love it and read it multiple times before I invest. It's not at all a perfect system, but generally speaking it serves me well.

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  2. I just bought this ebook because I saw it in the author's sig on AW - I'm writing Egyptian HF myself, and always on the lookout for good ancient Egyptian novels. I'm only a couple of chapters in, and already impressed by the depth of her knowledge on Egypt, and the control of language and storytelling. It's a great example of how self pubbing can make quality books available to the reader that might otherwise not have seen the light of day. I can't believe a publisher didn't pick it up though. I look forward to finishing it.

    Kallithrix

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  3. Hi, guys! Always late to the party, because I never check AW much anymore these days (AKM sent me a PM about this blog post, which I didn't see until today!) and also apparently Google Alerts has failed me. Yes, I keep Google Alerts running with all my book and short story titles. ;)

    Thank you so much for choosing The Sekhmet Bed as your most compelling read of 2012. I appreciate the acknowledgment very much! I worked hard to make it not just another "rival queens both trying to pop out a baby boy" story, and I'm glad readers have been appreciating the differences I worked into this plot. As an independent author, it's one-on-one connections that sell my books, so I am extremely grateful that TSB made such an impression on you and that you are telling others about it. This is the way book sales happen in the brave new world! :)

    Kallithrix -- good on you for writing some ancient Egyptian HF! We definitely need more of it. As AKM said in the body of her post, it is such a rich ore for HF writers, I have no idea why it's not more popular. There has been a small explosion of Egyptian HF titles in the self-pub world in 2012, and I'd love to see more of it, either indie or from major publishers. I know there will be one Hatshepsut novel from a traditional publisher late in 2013 (or early 2014?), but traditional publishers are still way behind in terms of what readers are demanding NOW. (as usual!) So I'm looking forward to reading yours as well.

    I am wrapping up the sequel to TSB and should have it out soon. I hesitate to give specific dates, because whenever I do life throws me a curve ball and it has to get pushed back, but SOON. :)

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