In which I dabble in ancient history and reaffirm my desire for an Egyptian holiday
Title: The Heretic Queen
Author: Michelle Moran
What it’s about: Set in ancient Egypt, The Heretic Queen is a fictional account of the life of Nefertari, a royal princess from a fallen dynasty trying to find a place in a court that reviles her ancestors and calls her a heretic. In Michelle Moran’s telling, Nefertari is the niece of Queen Nefertiri, whose husband was known for tearing down the gods and establishing one in their place and who history remembers as the Heretic King. All of Nefertari’s relatives were killed before her birth–her namesake aunt, the Heretic King, her mother and father, and the last Pharaoh of her family’s dynasty, her grandfather Ay. Nefertari is raised as a royal princess, but her family’s dark history makes her a controversial figure in the new court. As she comes of age, she is chosen as the second wife of Ramses II. Nefertari must use her considerable skills in language and diplomacy to win the love of the people in hopes that Ramses will chose her as his Chief Wife and ensure her family’s rightful place in the annals of Egyptian history.
The real Nefertari: Whenever I read historical fiction, I inevitably wonder which parts are real and which are created for the story. So, I did a little research. An important aspect of Moran’s story is Nefertari’s relationship to her heretic aunt Nefertiri, but history actually cannot define the relation between the two. In fact, Nefertari’s parentage is unknown. Grave goods found in her tomb support her relation to Nefertiri’s father, Pharaoh Ay, but other sources suggest she could have been Ramses’ half-sister by his father Seti. For the purposes of Moran’s story, however, the relationship to Nefertiri is at least plausible and makes the narrative more compelling. Also interesting is evidence that Ramses and Nefertari were more than just a politically advantageous match. Poetry written by Ramses survives describing his great love for Nefertari and she was one of only two Egyptian queens to be deified during her lifetime.
Confession: Historical fiction is one of my dirty pleasures. I feel a little less guilty about reading about court intrigue, passion, murder, and rivalry when the characters are drawn from real life. It’s like research, right?! (It’s not.) I picked up this book because I really loved Moran’s debut novel, Nefertiri. This follow-up continues the story, referencing some of the characters in the first, but it still works as a standalone. The plot is engrossing and Moran has a talent for making ancient figures believable but still relateable. This book also combines two of my favorite topics in historical fiction–Egypt and queens.
Would I recommend? Yes, to fans of Phillipa Gregory novels and amateur Egyptologists.