The Twelfth Transforming (1984): Pauline Gedge

★★★★

What distinguishes a visionary from a madman? That question lies at the heart of this sumptuous novel by Pauline Gedge, which takes us to the Egyptian court of the late 18th dynasty, in the mid-14th century BC. The Empress Tiye is the primary wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose failing health and debaucheries distract him from the everyday business of ruling. Tiye has commanded the reins of power for years, using her acute political sensibilities to keep Egypt prosperous and to maintain its military supremacy. Unusually, she is not of full royal blood herself, and her rise has also boosted members of her family, especially her brother Ay, a leading courtier. Now, in the twilight of her husband’s reign, Tiye is preoccupied with the issue of the succession. Her eldest son, also called Amunhotep, has spent his life imprisoned within the harem, hated and suspected by his father, but he is the only plausible successor if Tiye wishes to continue her control of Egyptian politics. She sets out to secure the throne for her son, planning to marry him off to her niece (Ay’s daughter) Nefertiti, thereby cementing her family’s influence. It is a fine plan. But Tiye hasn’t accounted for one crucial detail: the personality of the prince into whose hands she has consigned the future of her country. For Amunhotep IV – or Akhenaten, as he renames himself – has a vision of his own for Egypt, which will strike to the very heart of the country’s civilisation. Epic in every sense, this account of the Amarna period is richly intricate: a gripping story of Egypt’s most extraordinary, fascinating and enigmatic personalities.

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House of Dreams (1994): Pauline Gedge

★★★★

The Story of Thu: Book 1

Sharp, shrewd and ambitious, Thu chafes at the limits of life in her small village, Aswat, on the banks of the Nile. She resents the fact that her beloved brother Pa-ari is allowed to go to school at the Temple of Wepwawet, where he is learning to become a scribe, while Thu has to content herself with learning to follow her mother’s trade as a herbalist and midwife. What alternative does she have? This is the 12th century BC, in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, and young women have limited say in their own destiny; but her family haven’t reckoned with Thu’s steely determination. This engaging novel, the first of a two-part series, draws us into the inexorable rise of a protagonist who is by turns strikingly naive and astonishingly manipulative, occasionally irritating, but always intriguing. Inspired by the Harem Conspiracy of 1155 BC, it’s the first of Pauline Gedge’s books that I’ve read and offers an enjoyable glimpse of Ancient Egypt seen through the eyes of a novelist who has made the period her speciality.

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