She is Nefertiti—beautiful and revered. With her husband, Akhenaten, she rules over Egypt, the most affluent, formidable, sophisticated empire in the ancient world. But an epic power struggle is afoot, brought on by the royal couple's inauguration of an enlightened new religion and the construction of a magnificent new capital. The priests are stunned by the abrupt forfeiture of their traditional wealth and influence; the people resent the loss of their gods—and the army is enraged by the growing turbulence around them. Then, just days before the festival that will celebrate the new capital, Nefertiti vanishes.
Rahotep, the youngest chief detective in the Thebes division, has earned a reputation for his unorthodox yet effective methods. Entrusted by great Akhenaten himself with a most secret investigation, Rahotep has but ten days to find the missing Queen. If he succeeds, he will bask in the warmth of Akhenaten's favor. But if Rahotep fails, he and his entire family will die.
*** possible spoiler alert***
Here’s a little known fact about me: once upon a time when I was 11 years old, I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. Earlier that day I had visited my local library and returned with a fresh stack of books, so I picked one up to read until I got sleepy again. I was up the entire night reading. The book was an account of Howard Carter’s opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. (Yes, I picked that book up, on purpose, at 11.) From that night on, I wanted to be an archeologist, specializing in Egyptology. Fast forward to today…..alas, I am not an archeologist **sad panda**, but I am still fascinated by Ancient Egypt.
It’s the 12th year of the reign of the Heretic King, Akhenaten. Rai Rahotep is a detective in the ranks of the Medjay, which is basically the Pharaoh's law enforcement system. Rahotep is summoned out to Akhenaten’s new city to investigate a mystery, the details of which he is not told. He leaves his wife and three daughters reluctantly, knowing that if he is unable to solve this mystery he could very well pay with his life. He hasn’t even made it to his destination before there is an attempt on his life. Somebody really doesn’t want him on this case.
Akhenaten hasn’t made a whole lot of friends in his reign so far. He has abolished the old polytheistic religion and replaced all of the old gods with one, Aten. Needless to say, this did not go over too well with all of the priests of the old religion, of which there were MANY. The priests commanded a fair amount of power and wealth, and with one fell swoop Akhenaten put them out of a job and outlawed the gods that all the people of his land had worshipped since time out of mind. Since the Pharaoh was seen to be the embodiment of the divine on earth, no one could speak against him.
Rahotep is a realist, and while he has also worshipped all the old gods all his life, he has not felt any connection to it all in quite some time. He’s like most cops - he sees the gritty, hard side of life, and finds it hard to believe that anything ultimately in control. He sees the danger the Akhenaten has put himself in by making enemies of the priests, and I think it likely that they would be his first suspects in a strike against the king. He arrives at the city and is escorted to the Medjay office where he meets the head of the Medjay, Mahu. He is also assigned two other officers to assist him in his investigation, Khety and Tjenry. Mahu only informs him that Akhenaten insists on speaking with Rahotep himself. Rahotep is taken to the king’s chambers and there the secret of his summoning is revealed: Nefertiti, the queen has been missing for the last five days.
The king demands that Rahotep find her, or those who took her, in under ten days. He seems more pissed that someone has taken her, rather than worried for her safety. There is a big festival coming up, and there will be consequences if she is not there, or if her absence is not easily explained. He tells Rahotep that if he fails to find her in the time allotted it will mean his life, and the life of his family. (Oh, real nice, king) Rahotep soon finds out that Nefertiti’s disappearance is the worst kept secret in the whole city. That’s part of the reason that Akhenaten brought him there - Rahotep is an outsider, and Akhenaten tells him to trust no one.
He starts his investigation where logic would dictate: with the last person to have seen Nefertiti. He is interviewing her handmaiden when word comes that a body has been found. The body is wearing the queen’s clothes and jewellery, and is of a similar build as her but the face has been damaged so badly that there is no way to tell if it is her. This was a particularly heinous way to kill someone for more than one reason. By damaging the face her killers have disguised her appearance, but there is also a double meaning. According to Egyptian beliefs she cannot enter the afterlife if her body is not whole, so her killers have condemned her soul to wander for eternity. Rahotep is examining the body when the king bursts in, and confirms (thanks to a scar) that poor girl is not his wife. The mystery deepens - whoever has taken her wants everyone to think she is dead. I found it interesting that a body didn’t turn up until someone was assigned to investigate her disappearance. The queen is actually more popular among the people than her husband, and the new religion he has started. The way Nefertiti is portrayed brought Princess Diana strongly to my mind, in the way that people just flocked to her, how they just loved her.
Rahotep has a laundry list of suspects a mile long at this point. He suspects the former priests, surely, but you also have to think about machinations within the court as well. The king’s mother is mentioned, as her beauty and influence have waned next to Nefertiti. There are a host of advisors and other hangers-on, all with their own agendas - even the queen’s own brother-in-law, Horemheb, a rising star general in the army. Rahotep also has to consider outside influences, other kingdoms who would do well to destabilize the most powerful monarchy in the land. The people themselves are uneasy with this new religion, and many never abandoned the worship the old gods. He and Khety attend a party to meet Ramoses, who is a vizier, advisor to the king, and basically the power behind the throne. Everyone he meets seems suspicious, and Rahotep is no closer to a solid lead. He and Khety are summoned from the party to a gruesome scene. Tjerny, the younger Medjay that had been assisting Rahotep has been murdered, horribly. He was strapped down alive to a mummification table and had his eyes removed, along with his brain - which they used to dig out through the nose with long spoons. Who ever this is has stepped up his game, showing Rahotep that even those closest to him are not safe. Rahotep worries that he will never see his beloved wife and three daughters ever again.
Rahotep investigates the mystery of the murdered girl, and experiences roadblocks at every turn. He is nearly killed in another assassination attempt, but thanks to a quick assist from Khety he avoids the assassin’s arrow. They escape into the city and go into hiding, while trying to investigate secretly. They make some good progress, but when another elite advisor to the king is killed Rahotep is spotted and taken into custody. Mahu tells him that he was trying to help him, that he could have helped him, even though he really didn’t like him encroaching on his territory. Rahotep doesn’t believe a word of it, sure that Mahu sent the bowman to kill him. Mahu locks him up in a guarded chamber, but Rahotep escapes out of a window.
The scenes that follow are kind of surreal - he sneaks into the street, trying to put some distance between him and the Medjay offices. He winds up following a cat into a graveyard. (I know, I said the same thing - this dude, who has been nothing but evidence and solid facts is all of a sudden following cats?) While in the graveyard he finds a secret chamber and follows it underground, and at this point he’s wondering if he’s actually dead and just dreaming all of this. When he reaches the light at the end of the chamber he is faced with a scene right out of the Egyptian Book of the Dead - which in the “enlightened” city of this new religion, should have meant nothing. He goes through the “weighing of the heart” ceremony (still feeling like he might be dreaming) and meets the occupant of the hiding place: Nefertiti herself.
You might think this is the end of the story, but don’t be fooled; everything just took a sharp twist to the left. Why did Nefertiti disappear? Did she kill to cover her tracks, and what threat would force the Queen of Egypt into hiding in an underground tomb? Rahotep finds himself surrounded by enemies, desperately searching for the truth. He only uncovers more questions. What is the Society of Ashes? Who really holds the power in Egypt? Running short on time, Rahotep races to unravel the hopelessly tangled threads of intrigue surrounding the royal family. The scope of mystery only becomes broader and more complicated, bringing to light whole generations of careful manipulation. Rahotep’s battle is not just for his life, and the life of his family: it is the fight for the soul of Egypt itself.
I really loved this story, and how the author brought Ancient Egypt to life on the pages. Rahotep is a great character, and I loved watching his logical mind try to make sense of the madness going on around him. I was delighted to find out that this book is the first in a trilogy! The second book is focused on Tutankhamun, who you may remember from the beginning of this review, was my first Pharaoh. These next two books are on my “buy asap” list, so look for a review for both of them soon.
Till next time,
About the Author:
Nick Drake was born in 1961. He lives and works in London. His first book-length collection, The Man in the White Suit (Bloodaxe Books, 1999), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 1999, and was selected for the Next Generation Poets promotion in 2004. From The Word Go was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2007.
His most recent projects include a stage adaptation of Philippe Petit’s To Reach the Cloud; the screenplay for the Australian film Romulus, My Father, starring Eric Bana, which won Best Film at the Australian Film Awards; Success, a play for the National Theatre's Connections project; and a trilogy of historical novels (Nefertiti, shortlisted for CWA Best Historical Crime Novel, Tutankhamun and Egypt: The Book of Chaos which Mammoth Screen are developing for TV).
He is a screenwriter, and is also working the composer Tansy Davies and director Deborah Warner on an opera for ENO. In September 2010 he was invited to join Cape Farewell's trip to the Arctic to explore climate change, and from that journey arose a commission from United Visual Artists to create poems and texts for their ground-breaking installation High Arctic at the National Maritime Museum (2011). Those poems, together with others inspired by the Arctic and its voices, are gathered in his collection The Farewell Glacier (Bloodaxe Books, 2012).