By Michelle Moran
Crown, 460pp., $24.95
A girl's quest for empowerment. A paranoid young king in search of immortality. Untrustworthy advisers, mutinous soldiers, and, of course, lust, greed, and betrayal. It's the stuff of legend, and author Michelle Moran weaves it all together spectacularly, crafting a novel about the making of not just a powerful queen, but a goddess. Even now, some 3,000 years after her death, her name is still familiar: Nefertiti.
This meticulously researched and richly detailed debut, "Nefertiti," is fiction grounded in fact. In 1351 BC, 17-year-old Prince Amunhotep becomes pharaoh after his older brother's sudden, mysterious death. His mother, Queen Tiye, chooses her 15-year-old niece, Nefertiti, to be his chief wife, but the girl, aghast by the way the pharaoh reaps the glory while the queen runs the country, wants more. "When I am queen," Nefertiti says, "it will be my name that lives in eternity."
The story is told from the point of view of Nefertiti's younger half sister, Mutnodjmet, a healer. It is much more than simply a love story, or the documentation of an epic political power play, or a tale about the relationship between two sisters. Written in a conversational, intimate style, the book draws the reader in effortlessly, making ancient Egypt accessible, and its inhabitants - and their flaws - familiar.
The young, new pharaoh is egomaniacal, unstable, and easily manipulated. Nefertiti takes full advantage of this, breaking traditions at every turn without regard to the consequences. When he turns his back on the traditional god, Amun, she joins him, stripping the priests of their power and leading the people in worship of a new sun god, Aten. She installs herself in the pharaoh's chambers to make him inaccessible to his other wives. She grants her favorite artist access to every part of her life, ensuring her celebrity. She agrees to allow the army leave Egypt's borders untended, ordering them instead to build temples and a new capital city in Aten's honor. "I stood frozen, stunned by the sprawling landscape dotted with pillars that pierced the sky," Mutnodjmet describes. "Thousands of builders groaned under the weight of heavy columns, hoisting them up with ropes. The columned courtyard of Aten's temple had been completed."
History has already told us what happens: Amunhotep changes his name to Akhenaten, in honor of his chosen god. Nefertiti gives birth to several daughters, while another of Amunhotep's wives give him sons - most notably, Tutankhamun. But Moran deftly fills in the gaps left by historians, taking their discoveries and using them to bring the ancient society to life. For example: A portrait found in the ruined city of Amarna shows Mutnodjmet standing to the side, her arms down, while the people around her are depicted embracing Aten; Moran saw this as a statement of Mutnodjmet's defiance of her sister, the queen, and tells her story accordingly.
Almost every character in the book is based on a historical figure, and Moran fleshes out their personalities beautifully, highlighting the teenage pharaoh's arrogance and paranoia, underscoring his queen's ambition and insecurity. When warned by one of his chief advisers that his new city has been built hastily and is not structurally sound, Akhenaten snaps, "What does it matter so long as the temple and the palace are built to last? The workers can rebuild their houses. And I want this city before I die." Nefertiti is never satisfied, even when her visage has been carved or painted onto every available surface in the city, even when Akhenaten hands her the symbolic crook and flail, crowning her pharaoh and co-regent of his kingdom.
Inspired by the distinctive bust of Nefertiti at the Altes Museum, in Berlin, Moran has created an engrossing tribute to one of the most powerful and alluring women in history.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a member of the Globe staff.