Nefertiti
by Michelle Moran
(Crown, $24.95, PG) ISBN 0-307-38146-0
*****
Newcomer Michelle Moran delivers a stunning debut with Nefertiti, the story of the epic Egyptian queen as told by her younger sister, Mutnodjmet, or Mutny for short. The story opens in 1351 BC with the death of the Crown Prince, Thutmosis, probably at the hand of his jealous younger brother, Amunhotep IV. With only one son left to rule, Queen Tiye and Pharaoh Amunhotep III have no choice but to accept the 17-year-old Amunhotep as the new Crown Prince. Before sending him off to Memphis and the Lower Kingdom, he must choose a Chief Wife.

Fifteen-year-old Nefertiti is the perfect choice. Daughter of a princess, she is beautiful, flirtatious, and intelligent. Her father is a great vizier, and her aunt is none other than Queen Tiye herself. If anyone can restrain the rebellious, petulant Amunhotep and his fixation on Aten, the sun, it will certainly be Nefertiti, or so Queen Tiye hopes. Under Nefertiti’s control, the rulers believe Amunhotep will return to the proper worship of Amun, the sun god himself.

Nefertiti soon captivates Amunhotep, much to the seething dismay of his pregnant First Wife, Kiya. But Nefertiti soon finds that Amunhotep is impossible to control. Calculating and power-hungry, Nefertiti joins Amunhotep in his plans to build a new city dedicated to Aten, a city in the desert called Amarna. It will be financed with gold from the temples of Amun. Any priest who refuses to give up treasure to the new Pharaoh will be put to death. And anyone perceived as a threat, like the general Horemheb, will be banished.

Told in first person by Mutny, Nefertiti is portrayed as a spoiled teenager handed too much power too soon, with little moral center to balance it. Her whims must be addressed; her desires must be filled at all costs. The phrase “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” might be attributed to Lord Acton in 1887, but it’s tailor-made for Amunhotep, now called Akhenaten, and his fanatical devotion to Aten. This is a teenaged king with unlimited power and no depth of thought or understanding; truly the worst possible kind of ruler. The story unfolds like a train wreck: impossible to look away though the reader knows that disaster is in the making.

The author brings the Egyptian court alive with intrigues, double-dealing, and threads of honor among the corruption. Mutny is attracted to a general in the Egyptian army who sees the Pharaoh for the dangerous fanatic that he is, and when their relationship is made known to Akhenaten by the vengeful Kiya, the events that transpire will finally turn Mutnodjmet against her sister - perhaps forever. As Kiya bears sons and Nefertiti only daughters, and Akhenaten orders the army to build temples carved with the likenesses of himself and Nefertiti rather than defend Egypt’s borders, the story builds to a shocking climax.

This is an incredible first novel, and at the risk of sounding like a gushing fangirl, I could not put it down. Moran gets the details just right; readers will feel they’re sitting in the middle of the Pharaoh’s court, living events with Mutny and her family. The sights, scents, and sounds of ancient Egypt drift through the story, bringing it alive and making this ancient world seem as familiar as your own living room. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Nefertiti, while exasperating, never loses a hint of vulnerability, and that keeps her human. Akhenaten is too far gone for sympathy, but since he’s presented as a power-mad villain right from the start, readers know what to expect from him. The romance between Mutny and the general is mostly backdrop, but serves the story well. Moran’s smooth storytelling style is the icing on the cake.

Nefertiti is one of the year’s “don’t miss” novels. Engrossing, detailed, it brings ancient Egypt to life while giving us an intimate look at a young woman who shaped history. Michelle Moran is a welcome new voice, indeed.

--Cathy Sova


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