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In this second superior epic of ancient Egypt, the author of Child of the Morning (1977) again achieves Mary Renault-ish grandeur without Renault's weightiness: there's a pervasive ambiance of antiquity, dynamic beings struggle within giant destinies--and a centuries-old mystery is pursued with unobtrusive scholarship and industrious fictional constructs. Amenhotep IV--later Akenaton--was Pharaoh of Egypt circa 1372-54 B.C., and he has come to be known (probably incorrectly) as the era's first monotheist, in his worship of the Sun god Aten (or Ra). Here he is first seen as ""a pliable reed,"" a withdrawn youth long-exiled by his father, Amenhotep III. But, through wily diplomacy, the astute Empress Tiye urges the dying old Pharaoh to proclaim her son as his heir. And Tiye, with her brother Ay and up-and-coming warrior Heremheb, expects to control the young king--representing the Old Guard in a state in which the dominating Amun worship is only one pillar in a pragmatic politic. Everyone, then, is unprepared for the eerie onrush of Amenhotep IV's religious sandstorm: the new pharaoh, with ""a guilelessness that seemed too studied to be authentic,"" at times ""alarmingly vague,"" is a vision-wracked ruler--certain that it is he, ""the incarnation of Ra,"" who must depose the god Amun and build Ra's new city in the desert. Now ""Akenaton,"" he sweeps along mesmerized followers of the royal bandwagon, not to mention the furiously plotting royal family (including Queen Nefertiti, whose murder of her predecessor is overlooked by the otherworldly pharaoh). He builds his ""ethereally beautiful"" city of Akhetaten and has a further revelation: ""I am the Aten himself. At the twelfth transforming of Ra I felt myself born."" But outside the dream city the Empire is crumbling; there's drought and famine; Egypt's enemies move in while the frail, gentle, god-drunk ruler prostrates himself before ""the blazing ferocity of the god."" And though Akenaton sires doomed children by his mother, sister, and daughters, the dynasty will end after assassinations, a realignment of priestly forces, and a labyrinthian power struggle. Gedge doesn't exploit the sensational aspects of incest and murder, but focuses instead on the jostlings for power and survival, the quests for leverage in the alien ozone of a visionary's tortured ego. And the result is a conscientious and generally stimulating novel of period pageantry and royal conflict--with much-chronicled Amenhotep/Akenaton seen here as an oddly compelling sort of benign Caligula.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1984
ISBN: 0140249494
Publisher: Harper & Row