Nefertiti: Joyce Tyldesley

★★★★

Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

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The Sleeper in the Sands: Tom Holland

★★★½

Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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A Wind in Cairo: Judith Tarr

★★★★

For some reason, I always had Judith Tarr down as an author of historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt. However, though she has written some books with this setting, it turns out she’s a prolific author of historical fiction more broadly, as well as historical fantasy. I discovered this book completely by chance thanks to a post Tarr wrote at Tor.com on C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and his Boy, and have been utterly charmed by it. It’s an Arabian-Nights-style fantasy, set in Cairo in the 13th century during the rule of the young sultan Salah Al-Din: a tale of enchantment, arrogance, romance, and self-realisation, with a fiery young heroine and a most unconventional hero.

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Rome: The Emperor’s Spy: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book I

Manda Scott; the Emperor Nero; chariot-racing; mystery cults; a love triangle; and an imperial spy fighting against time to prevent disaster: it’s a formidably tempting combination. Needless to say, I’ve been itching to read this ever since I finished the last of the Boudica novels and was finally able to wait no longer. And it thoroughly lived up to expectations, as I tore breathlessly through an audacious, fast-paced story, plotted with an almost Dunnettian dexterity.

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Pyramids: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book VII

The Old Kingdom of the Djel river valley has endured for millennia, governed by ancient rituals and overshadowed by its pyramids, the mighty tombs of former monarchs, which flare their power up into the night. It isn’t a place that accepts change easily. And yet, in a small act of defiance, King Teppicymon XXVII decides to send his son away to school. He’s heard that the Assassins’ Guild in Ankh-Morpork offers a fine modern education, and so young Teppic is bundled off for an improving course of etiquette, history, foreign languages and rudimentary chemistry. Oh, and learning how to ‘inhume’ people as well, of course, but it’s considered a bit vulgar to talk about that. The problem comes, however, when the King shuffles off this mortal coil mere hours after his son’s graduation exam, and Teppic is suddenly forced to confront a burning question: how on earth does one reconcile being a thoroughly modern assassin and a living god?

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Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds

Canopus: Sunken Cities

(British Museum, 19 May – 27 November 2016)

It’s rather shameful that I haven’t written anything about this exhibition yet, because it’s been open for more than a month and really is worth seeing. My excuse is that I have to squeeze in sightseeing during my lunch breaks and things haven’t been as quiet as they could have been. However, with deadlines out of the way and notebook in hand, I pottered off yesterday lunchtime to explore the underwater delights of ancient Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.

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The Beacon at Alexandria: Gillian Bradshaw

★★★★

In one sense, of course, the title refers to the Pharos: that great lighthouse in the harbour of Alexandria which became one of the Wonders of the World. But it has another meaning too. Alexandria is a place of possibility and hope: a vast melting pot in which different cultures and religions have coexisted for centuries. It’s a place of ideas. And Charis of Ephesus hopes it’ll be a place of freedom.

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