She was threatening and powerful and stunning. She looked at herself in the mirror as Thutmose came up behind her. He raised the flat-topped crown so all of us could see it, then fit the burden tightly around Nefertiti’s head. No one else could have worn it. It had been designed for her, tall and slender with an asp ready to spit poison into her enemies’ eyes. Nefertiti turned around, and if I had been a peasant in the fields, I would have thought I was staring into the face of a goddess. -From Nefertiti, page 206-
Michelle Moran’s debut novel Nefertiti is a sprawling historical fiction set in ancient Egypt. Nefertiti, the beautiful daughter of the Queen’s brother, is wed at age 15 to the Pharaoh’s son Amunhotep (who later renames himself Akhenaten). Nefertiti, chosen to temper the rash judgment of Amunhotep, must win the future Pharaoh’s heart to keep her place as Queen. Amunhotep becomes Pharaoh of all Egypt when his father dies under suspicious circumstances. When he turns his back on the trusted God Amun to worship Aten – the God of the Sun – and erects a new city in Aten’s honor, Nefertiti finds herself embroiled in the political dangers of the Court.
Narrated by Nefertiti’s younger sister, Mutnodjmet, the novel is full of vivid imagery and reveals the greed, power and wealth which surrounded the royalty of ancient Egypt. Nefertiti’s reign as First Wife and Queen, and later her ascendancy to Pharaoh-Queen is told in splendid detail.
I parted the curtains, and on every new temple and shrine was Nefertiti’s image: on the doors, across the walls, from the faces of crouching sphinxes. She was etched into every public space, her face engraved where the faces of Isis and Hathor should have been. And from the massive columns supporting the palace, in place of Amun peered the profile of Akhenaten. When the litter bearers put us down beyond the fortified gates, Nakhtmin stared up at the pylons, then looked out over the city. “They have made themselves into gods.” -From Nefertiti, page 373-
But it is perhaps the lesser story of her sister Mutnodjmet (Mutny) which enchants the reader the most. Mutny is loyal to her family, serves as doting servant to her sister, adores her vast and beautiful gardens, and is skilled in healing. Her romance with General Nakhtmin – a man with whom the new Pharaoh disapproves – forces her to re-examine her loyalties. It is through Mutny’s eyes that the reader grows to understand the sacrifice her sister makes to hold the ultimate power in Egypt.
No Pharaoh had ever granted the crook and flail to a woman. But when Nefertiti stood before the crowds to bless the, they pressed against each other and stood on stools simply to catch a glimpse of her face. -from Nefertiti, page 398-
Moran’s novel is a page turner, impeccably researched and satisfying. Nefertiti is full of intrigue, romance, and history. Readers who want to experience life in Egypt from 1351 BCE through 1335 BCE will not want to miss this book.