Plot: Nefertiti is the daughter of a common man but she is beautiful and skilled, both in dance and writing. Her aunt Tiye is Pharaoh’s Most Favored Wife, the mother of the crown prince. Tiye is a very powerful woman but one who is afraid for her power; this has made her paranoid and cruel. She has decided that the best was to ensure that her son Thutmose takes the throne is to marry him to Nefertiti. Though her father cannot argue with the Queen, he manages to extract a promise that Nefertiti will not need to marry for 3 years, giving her the time to get to know her bridegroom. Nefertiti must now enter the palace at Thebes alone, without friends and surrounded by conspiracy.
Friesner does a wonderful job of taking a historical figure that we know little about and fleshing her out to create a strong, intelligent and compelling young woman. Nefertiti is put in a very difficult situation: her aunt is paranoid and controlling, her bridegroom cold and jealous and her every action might be the subject of rumours and misunderstandings. But, though she can occasionally be naive about court politics, she always rises to the challenge in the end, and she does it without compromising her values.
The other characters are also likable, developed and interesting. Nefertiti’s friendship with the eldest princess, with whom she shares a love of the scribal arts, is quite refreshing as is her growing affection for the younger prince which is based on personality, not looks (for Thutmose is by far the more handsome brother). I could see myself falling in love with Amenophis too, for all that he has his own faults. Even the more detestable characters, notably Tiye and Thutmose, are human and we can understand the things they do and the neurosis that drive them, even if we cannot forgive them.
Friesner clearly did her research. This feels like ancient Egypt. There are so many details about every day life: about food, dress, religion, about simple things like the fact that all cats are named cat or she cat (because a cat doesn’t come when you call it anyways!) that bring the world to life.
The books ends on a thrilling cliffhanger that leaves you eager for more. I’ve already pre-ordered the second book in this series, Sphinx’s Queen.
Friesner’s next series will take us to early Japan to tell the story of Queen Himiko. I’m sure she can do it justice. In the mean time check out Friesner’s duology about Helen of Troy, Nobody’s Princess and Nobody’s Prize.