The new fantasy novel by Nelson (Dragonslayer’s Sword, 2008) is set in an ancient Egypt that never fell.
The author presents a plausible society that has grown out of ancient Egypt and developed into a vaguely repressive police state that runs the White Walled City at the heart of the Black Land. Surveillance cameras (called Eyes of Horus) keep a careful watch on citizens, who are indoctrinated from childhood into the cult of the pharaoh. For young girls, fertility is their highest calling and being chosen for the pharaoh’s harem is a singular honor. One such young woman is Pu, who has already borne the pharaoh many children and, at the start of the novel, has a terrible secret that she confesses to Meres, her blunt and slightly priggish sister-in-law. Pu is pregnant again, but the pharaoh is not the father. This immediately traps Meres in a conflict between faith and family since Pu’s transgression is punishable by death. There follows an intricate and at times labored story in which Nelson shows the reader a well-conceived alternate ancient Egypt—characters have watches and drive cars, yet they also interact personally with their gods and obsess about their funerary rites. The author takes the daring step of having Meres remain mostly unlikable (the book’s main strength is its cast of secondary characters; Ramose, Meres’ husband, stands out as a particularly successful creation). Even after she undergoes what amounts to a spiritual conversion, Meres is still fussy and self-righteous. Nelson has a tin ear for dialogue—most of it is simply exposition in quotes—but she more than compensates for this with her ability to evoke all the contradictory atmospheres of her setting, a place where modern-day technology mingles easily with the superstitions of a vanished world.
Though in need of a final, pruning edit, this long, ambitious book is an elaborate and satisfying narrative, a must for devotees of ancient Egypt.