The Mistress of Nothing
By Kate Pullinger
A Touchstone Book
Simon & Schuster
I love historical fiction and the longer the better which is why I was surprised by this little book and how much I did like it even if I did feel as though there could have been more in terms of the historical. In the end, it was about the characters more than the place and I came to terms with that over the course of 250+ pages.
When Lady Duff Gordon makes the decision to move to Egypt permanently for the sake of her health, her maid, Sally Naldrett, is excited, joyous even at the prospect of a new life. Always a woman of low means, Sally is happy with the idea of being her Lady’s mistress but when they finally arrive at their destination in Luxor, the formalness of England begins to dissipate and she finds herself more a friend and confident than a servant. Her relationship with Lady Duff Gordon is not the only thing in her life to dramatically change — she falls in love with Omar Abu Halaweh, the dragoman brought on to assist Lady Duff Gordon. Unfortunately, he is already married with children. Their relationship becomes too much for Lady Duff Gordon and Sally finds herself alone and abandoned in a country not her own but one she loves as if it were.
As I said, this is a very short book and oddly, when I finished, I found myself furious. Lady Duff Gordon ruins Sally for what she considers a betrayal. But the irony in that is she has helped servants in the past who have been in the same position as Sally so after being fascinated by this person and the way she defined her role as woman, mother, and wife, I found her intolerance towards Sally hateful. I want to say she ruined the story for me but she didn’t (although I would have liked to have seen more about Egypt itself and what was happening at the time — it’s hinted at but not discussed). These two women, how their lives changed and how they were in many ways forced to not only accept but manufacture their own endings is really what this story is. My annoyance with Lady Duff Gordon quickly turned to a sort of understanding. I say sort because her treatment of Sally was truly hateful and a way to transfer her pain to another without having to deal with it.
Lady Duff Gordon was a real person and while I know nothing of her, she was an interesting person to revolve this story around. What it also gave me was an interest in more historical fiction about Egypt which I will be looking for in the near future.
By Michelle Moran
Three Rivers Press
Following the death of the Crown Prince Tuthmosis, Amunhotep IV takes the throne. His mother, Queen Tiye, fearful of his temper and rash behavior, wants a wife who will be able to control him. She believes her niece Nefertiti is that woman. Nefertiti is cunning, cruel, sweet, loving, manipulative, and so ambitious that she drips with it. Of course she shows none of this to the Queen mother and when the marriage is arranged, her family becomes one of the most powerful in Egypt.
Shortly after their marriage, Nefertiti and Amunhotep, who soon changes his name to Akhenaten to worship his god Aten, begin planning their dream city, Amarna. They drain the treasury and take soldiers away from the borders to build, ignoring the warnings of vizers who tell the couple they are putting Egypt in danger. Nefertiti is desperately trying to hold onto her husband who is slipping further into his own world and desperately hoping to give birth to a son. Slowly, the city and their dreams begin to crumble. In a flash, their life and the new Egypt that Nefertiti and her husband were building falls, leaving Egypt in peril.
The story is told through Mutnodjmet’s eyes, Nefertiti’s sister. She’s a kind, loving, and very loyal friend to her sister but never one for ambition. She’s the voice of reason that Nefertiti doesn’t listen to but she’s the one you instantly like. Nefertiti is cunning and a hard person to pin down which makes her incredibly interesting but I can’t imagine the story told by her. Moran makes Nefertiti so intriguing that you almost need the story to be told by Mutnodjmet to be able to take it all in.
This is such an interesting time period in Egypt’s history and Moran does it justice. The court, the people, and the descriptions are wonderful. Moran is definitely one of my new favorite authors and I’m looking forward to her next book.
By Michelle Moran
After the deaths of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt’s new conqueror, Octavian, takes their three children, twins Alexander and Selene, and the youngest Ptolemy, to Rome as prisoners. Ptolemy dies on the journey causing Alexander and Selene to cling to each other even more knowing Octavian can order their deaths on a whim. After being paraded through the streets of Rome in chains, Alexander and Selene are sent to live with Octavia, Octavian’s sister who loves them as her own. While their life is by no means difficult — Octavia goes out of her way to make them feel at home — they still live in fear of death and desperately long for Egypt.
Told through Selene’s eyes, the story focuses on her brother and their small group of friends. While Alexander spends his time and money with Octavia’s son Marcellus at the Circus Maximus, Selene spends her time studying and attempting to make herself useful to Octavian hoping he will send her and her brother home. When their 15th birthday arrives and they are declared adults, Selene and Alexander’s lives take on a heightened urgency. Knowing a marriage will soon be in her future, Selene prepares for a difficult life, and Alexander attempts to live out his days happily instead of worrying about the future knowing he may not have one as the last living son of Marc Antony.
I enjoyed this book and the incredible detail Moran adds to the story. Selene is strong, stubborn, and unwilling to forget who and what she is — a princess of Egypt and daughter of Cleopatra. She questions Octavian’s orders, is outspoken to her guards, and always makes it known that she wants to return to Egypt. The years they spend in Rome are eventful and eye opening, even the smallest trip to the forum is interesting creating an incredible picture of Roman life.
I wanted to read this book because I loved The Heretic Queen so much. I don’t think I liked this book as much but it was still a great read. Moran has a way of describing events and details so well that you can picture everything clearly. She drops you right into the story. Selene is a captive princess in a foreign land and you feel her loss, fear, hope, and eagerness to learn and be useful. There were two small things that bothered me though. I did wonder about Selene’s maturity level at the beginning (she is 10 when Octavian invades Egypt) as she seems way too precocious for her age, and I didn’t like her eager acceptance of her chosen husband at the end. These two things didn’t deter from my reading, just made me wonder, but in the end had no impact on my liking the story any less.
Moran is fast becoming one of my new favorite authors. Now, I’m off to buy a copy of Nefertiti since my library doesn’t have it.
The Heretic Queen
The Heretic Queen
By Michelle Moran
Three Rivers Press
I’ve never read any of Michelle Moran’s books but a number of bloggers were touting The Heretic Queen in advance of her new book, Cleopatra’s Daughter, which was released in September. I saw this in the bookstore and decided to pick it up. I have to say it was one of the most detailed and interesting books I’ve come across in a while. I read a lot of historical fiction and this one ranked near the top. She has a great talent for creating interesting characters and a story the pulls you along until the last page.
Princess Nefertari’s life changes when her friend Ramesses becomes Pharaoh. They grew up together at court and she was always treated as another daughter by the Pharaoh Seti, Ramesses’s father. She always had a friend, and more, in Ramesses but his elevation from Prince to Pharaoh throws her into the middle of court politics.
Her family’s history, Nefertiti is her aunt and had been deemed a heretic for changing the way the gods were worshiped, has followed her throughout her life. She is used to the backlash but it becomes more intense because of her relationship with Ramesses. She brushes off the politics and only feels sorry that she can’t be with Ramesses any longer. Princess Woserit, High Priestess of Hathor and sister to Pharaoh Seti, takes her away to the Temple of Hathor to teach her how to be a proper Egyptian princess and work to instill her as Ramesses wife.
Moran has a way of bringing you into the story through the details. Her writing is incredibly rich and you associate very strongly with the characters and what is happening to them. One small criticism — toward the end, events move very quickly hardly giving the reader time to catch his/her breath. Up to that point, things had been calculated and nicely paced. I did not find this to be a major problem with the story just something which happened that felt out of place to me but it also may well have been my reluctance to see it end.
I’ve already reserved a copy of Cleopatra’s Daughter at the library. Unfortunately, they do not have Nefertiti but I enjoyed this one so much I may just make another trip to the bookstore.