TUTANKHAMUN by Nick Drake (Review)

In my post on Nick Drake’s Nefertiti: The Book of the Dead, I said that, with the possible exception of Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End, it was the best murder mystery set in ancient times that I had ever read. And certainly the second best novel set in ancient Egypt: the best, of course, being Mika Waltari’s The Egyptian – which I will do a post on some time soon for anyone out there who may not have come across it.

By “set in ancient times” I suppose I mean BC, so I am not making invidious comparisons with all the private dicks, male and female,  who prowl the mean streets of Rome (I like Claudia – of I, Claudia quite as much as I like Falco). Rahotep’s mean streets are those of Thebes, and Tutankhamun is set entirely in this almost mythical city, apart from one very brief excursus by Royal Barge down-river to Memphis.

Since the adventure recorded in Nefertiti, about fifteen years have have passed. I am guessing, as it is not explicitly stated. (On the back cover of Nefertiti, it gives the date as 1800 BC, which is either a misprint or yet another example of mindlessness in an editorial office. On the back of Tutankhamun, it says 1324 BC.) Akhenaten’s two children, Ankhesenamun (one of his daughters by his Queen, Nefertiti) and Tutankhamun (his only son, by a mystery woman named Kiya who subsequently disappeared) sit on the throne of their ancestors. However, the real ruler of Egypt is the priest Ay, who has been Regent since the death of Akhenaten.

Now Ankhesenamun summons Rahotep to the Malkata Palace and informs him that she and Tutankhamun plan to seize the reins of power from the ageing Ay during the course of a ceremony which will take place at the great Temple of Amun during the next few days.

Ay will, of course, not like this, and will oppose it with all his might.

But is it Ay who is leaving foul objects in the royal quarters, designed not only to intimidate Ankhesenamun but to terrify the sickly and timid Tutankhamun? Or is it Horemheb, the great general, who with the army behind him has the means to make himself Pharaoh?  It will be Rahotep’s task to answer that question.

‘Why me?’ asks the horrified Rahotep, whose wife and children will be at risk should he upset either Ay or Horemheb.

‘My mother told me that if I was ever in real danger, I should call for you.’ Ankhesenamun tells him. ‘ She promised me you would come.’ 

Rahotep has little choice.

And his interest is caught when he realises that the person responsible for terrorising Tutankhamun may well be one with the perpetrator of some of the most horrific murders I have ever come across, be it in ancient Rome, medieval Paris or Victorian London. You will not forget the grisly details in a hurry. But nor, I promise you, will you put this book down, bored, and turn to another.

I also wrote in my review of the first book in this series, “Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.” He has done it again with Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun. These two characters are Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun to me now.

Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun
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NEFERTITI by Nick Drake (Review)

This is by any standards a perfect example of the classic detective story: a tough, cynical investigator straight off the mean streets of Thebes, a setting – Akhetaten, Egypt, 1800 BC – that is almost mythical in its connotations, and a villain and heroine who make their counterparts in most other books seem insipid by comparison and hardly worth bothering with at all.

Akhetaten is the city of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to reform the complex Egyptian religious system and introduce monotheism by imposing on all the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolised by the sun. Akhetaten, the new capital, was built out in the desert, far away far away from the other great cities of Egypt: and this was its weakness. It became something of a retreat from reality, and Akhenaten, his mind entirely on his religion, gradually lost control of what was, at the time, the greatest kingdom (and greatest empire) in the world.

Then Nefertiti, the Queen, disappears, and it is Rahotep’s job to find her – or her dead body and the name of her murderer. He has only ten days before a great festival at which she must be present; if he fails, Akhenaten tells him, he will die a horrible death, and his wife and children back in Thebes will die with him. But he is a stranger in Akhetaten: where can he start and who can he trust?

Nick Drake’s Nefertiti is the most convincing recreation I know of the queen whose beauty shines down through the millennia. She is Nefertiti to me now.

And the villain? Read it and see. There are some evil men involved and the author keeps the reader guessing, so I must too.

The best mystery set in ancient Egypt since Agatha Christie’s Death Comes As The End.

VINLAND by George MacKay Brown (Review)

Orkney, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Vinland, 1014-64

On the voyage back to Greenland, Leif ericson often had Ranald seated beside him at the helm of West Seeker. He gave Ranald instruction on navigation and the management of ships. ‘There is only one constant star in the sky, the northern star, and that star is the sailor’s friend always. But there is a great wheel of stars that swings nightly from east to west, and good sailors learn to read that map, and so they can hold a true course. There are five wandering stars that go likie tinkers or like pilgrims among the star-towns, and we become acquainted with their ways too. There is always the mystery of the moon. Does the moon touch some pulse in our blood? I have noticed that the moods of seamen alter with the changing moon. Many a sane sober man says strange things under a full moon. I have known men of few words utter poetry at such a time. I tell you this, Ranald, it is a foolish skipper who sets out on a voyage under a waning moon …’

At first glance, this book is another of those telling the life-story from boyhood to old age (if he is the narrator) or death of some lad who, when the north was torn between its “pagan” past and its “Christian” future, sails west with the Vikings and visits Iceland, Greenland and Vinland, but it is much more than that. For a start, it was, I believe, the first of the sub-genre, apart from Henry Treece’s classic Viking SagaViking’s Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking’s Sunset. And then it is securely based in the Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Earls of Orkney; is in fact a “dramatisation” of a section of that history, from the death in battle in 1014 of Earl Sigurd (holding the magical Raven Banner: if it was held aloft they would be victorious, but whoever held it would die; after several men had been killed, no one else would hold hold it, so he had to hold it himself) to the death of Earl Thorfinn in 1064.

Mackay Brown seems to have lived through this period of Orkney’s history, and the reader lives through it with him.

But that is not all. Our hero is Ranald Sigmundson who, after stowing away on Leif Ericson’s ship, lives for a while in Greenland and visits Vinland, then returns to Orkney worried about his old mother who must believe he has drowned, and there gets caught up in the farming life – and, briefly, politics, before becoming disillusioned with the earls and would-be earls and the factions and violence and lies – and spends the rest of his life resisting “the call of the sea” and dreaming of the voyages he made in his youth.

The word Vinland here becomes almost synonymous with Tir-nan-og, the Land of the Young, the Celtic Elysium, set out in the sea, far away beyond the sunset, “where Ossian dwelt with Niamh for three hundred years before he remembered Erin and the Fenians”.

A wonderful book. And read also, if you haven’t yet, Mackay Brown’s story of Earl Thorfinn’s grandson, Magnus, who died in 1117 as a result of more of the feuding that Ranald Sigmundson, in this book, hates so much.

A PLAY OF LORDS by Margaret Frazer

The Fourth in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the autumn of 1435 

‘Lord Lovell’s players, come to play for his grace the bishop of Winchester!’

The guards gave no sign of being impressed. Their cool, disinterested glance at hamper and players said that far more important people than Lord Lovell’s players came their way every day.

Joliffe did not doubt it. Bishop Beaufort – the bastard son of a royal Duke of Lancaster – was not only bishop of Winchester but cardinal of England and the present king’s great-uncle, a power in England’s government these twenty years and more and very possibly the wealthiest man in either of the king’s realms of France and England. Certainly he was the man who loaned the royal government far more money than anyone else was able to, with sometimes his loans the only thing that kept the war in France possible. Through King Henry’s infancy and young boyhood, Bishop Beaufort and his nephew John, duke of Bedford, had, between them, held the ambitions of John’s brother, the duke of Gloucester, in check; but Bedord was now dead, the war in France was in the worst trouble there had been since the burning of the French witch Jeanne d’Arc five years ago, and Joliffe expected that the king, at almost fourteen years of age, was probably beginning to have a mind of his own, let alone whatever the Duke of Gloucester was now up to, and all in all, life must presently be very interesting for Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, cardinal of England.

The fourth book in this series featuring the player and playwright Joliffe (an off-shoot of the Dame Frevisse series of medieval mysteries – they know each other and have appeared in a couple of books together) is set in London in the autumn of 1335. The Duke of Bedford, chief advisor to the still under-age Henry VI, is dead, and the nobles and bishops are scheming and plotting and jostling each other for positions of power around the boy-king.

Meanwhile, in France, the Duke of Burgundy has reneged on his alliance with England and joined forces with the king of France, thus rendering all Burgundians in England the object of jingoistic hatred. Some are killed by mobs – but are these riots spontaneous or is someone stirring up trouble?

Joliffe and the players find themselves “lent” to Cardinal Beaufort by their own master, Lord Lovell. And Beaufort, son of John o’ Gaunt, grandson of Edward III, and great-uncle of the king, commissions Joliffe to write a play which will influence public opinion against France rather than Burgundy. He also wants Joliffe to act as his spy when the company visit the great houses of other magnates and rich London merchants to perform their play.

Then the players are attacked. And someone is killed …

Hobnobbing with royals and moving with the currents of high society (something Dame Frevisse is well acquainted with – indeed has deliberately turned her back on) is new for Joliffe. As one might expect of such a talented actor and improvisor, he does it very well.

All in all, this is one of the best of this great double series.

A PLAY OF KNAVES by Margaret Frazer (Review)

The Third in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the spring of 1435 

He stopped at a gate into a ploughed field softly green with young shoots of grain. A lapwing was crying pee-wit from somewhere, but that was the only sound, and he bent and picked a small daisy out of the grass and chewed on its stalk for its sharp taste, leaning on the gate and gazing up at the White Horse on its hillside. Yesterday at this hour Medcote had been alive and now he wasn’t. That Medcote wasn’t a man to be mourned was beside the matter. Living and dying were a mystery deeper than any one man’s murder.
A man or woman lived and then they did not and mankind fumbled on its way and still there was the Horse, lifetimes old, in its flaring gallop across the hillside, its being a mystery among other mysteries.
Why had Medcote been such a curse toward everyone? […] Had he thought the power to make folk miserable was a greater power than to play fair with them? That was a mistake common to small-witted people – to think good was a weaker thing than evil. From all that Joliffe had see, evil – in both its greater ways and in such petty ones as bullying – was the weak man’s way, taking a fool’s pleasuer in his strength to destroy. To destroy was easy. To create was hard. And solid goodness to others was harder still, with maybe the hardest thing being to stand strong in the good against the anger and force of those who understood only ugliness and destruction. Against people like Medcote.
And like whoever had killed him.
Joliffe pushed back from the gate and went on toward the players’ camp, hungry for whatever was for dinner and ready to be away from his thoughts for a while.

In the third in this new series of books by Margaret Frazer, Master Bassett’s wandering players, now known as Lord Lovell’s Men, travel to the village of Ashewell, in the vale beneath the Uffington White Horse – to perform, but also to investigate, on behalf of Lady Lovell, an undercurrent of trouble in the area that no one has yet been able to put their finger on or do anything about.

And of course, among the players it is Dame Frevisse’s friend Joliffe who is the sleuth.

Three families, the Ashewells, the Medcotes and the Gosyns, are at loggerheads. An accidental killing by a young boy has never been forgiven ot forgotten. Now, in addition to that, young people are being forced into marriage with those they hate.

Then the first murder is committed – near the field where the players are camped. Of course, suspicion falls on them. To a lazy “crowner”, they would be convenient scapegoats. And while Joliffe is investigating, desperately trying to clear himself and the other players, a second murder occurs.

A little slow perhaps, sometimes, but that is not a problem when you enjoy the world and the company as much as I do these books. As always, her characters, both major and minor, are better than most, and the author’s in-depth knowledge of the period frequently leaves me with my mouth open. I am happy just to go on turning the pages, am always sorry when one of her books comes to an end.

But I want to quote a paragraph from the Author’s Note which I found very much to the point and in need of saying. By the late Middle Ages […] the feudal system still existed but no longer had the stranglehold on society that it had had even two hundred years before. Times do change. Think how different the lives we lead now are from those of two hundred years before our present time, and how different those times were from two hundred years before then. The Middle Ages were not a monolith that clunked down upon Europe with the fall of Rome and lasted like a solid, witless lump until the Renaissance arrived to Make Everything Better. There was change and growth, experiments in government and thought and religion that made the Renaissance possible.

 

CROSSING IN TIME by D. L. Orton (Review)

It’s not our abilities that show who we really are, it is our choices.”

Let me first say I like the dedication! It has two very nice touches.

To my husband Fernando,
and my sons
Tristan, Stefan & Cedric
without whom this book
would have been written in half the time.In the vast and wondrous expanse
of space-time,
you guys are the best.

So. We start in the Prologue with a scene set in a dystopian future “a few years from now”. The narrator, Isabel, is trying to buy a gun in exchange for some pepper (money is no use any more). She hasn’t a clue about guns and is completely in the hands of the repulsive seller, but a gun will protect her from would-be rapists, she hopes, having just been miraculously saved from one by a friendly dog.

Dystopia? This is hell on earth.

When the story opens, ten months earlier, we learn that world-wide catastrophe is imminent and that no one seems able to do anything to avert it. However (there is always a “however” in stories – I hope there will always be one in real life!) a top-secret prototype time-machine exists and it just may be possible for someone to go back in time and effect one very small alteration that will prevent this particular catastrophe from ever taking place without causing other changes that might themselves be disastrous.

Much frantic research finally reveals that a young man and a young woman broke up some twenty or so years previously and that if they had only stayed together this would have made all the difference. Now forty-year-old (but still very attractive) Isabel must go back, find young Diego, whom she of course remembers and is still in love with, but who has not yet even met the young Isabel, and persuade him that when he does eventually meet this other, younger, Isabel, he must at all costs stay with her, not leave her.

What could possibly go wrong?

A great story, and one of the best books I read this summer, Crossing in Time is the first in a five-book series collectively entitled “Between Two Evils”. I have downloaded the second and shall probably go on to read all five.

A PLAY OF DUX MORAUD by Margaret Frazer

The Second in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries. England, 1434

He was on the curve of the stairs beyond sight of anyone at their head or foot when he met Mariena coming up. In the stone-walled narrowness he stepped as much aside as he could, flattening his back to the wall to let her pass. Though she had to turn sideways, too, there was room for her to pass without touching him but she did – and more than touched. She brushed her body, her breasts, and hips across his, for a moment paused with her fine-boned, beautiful face upturned to his, her lips slightly parted, inviting a kiss he might have given except that he was so startled he only stared at her in the instant before her gaze fell and she went on, with the slightest of smiles at the corner of her mouth and a sidelong look back at him from under her lowered lids before the curve of the stairs took her from sight.

Swallowing thickly, shaken by how easily she had raised him, he went uncomfortably downward, only to meet Sia on the last curve of the stairs. He would rather not have dealt with her just then and would have gone past when she stepped aside, out of his way, but she put out her arm, barring him from going down, and said, ‘She was waiting for you, you know.’

‘And so were you,’ Joliffe said lightly; and because Sia was almost as near to him as Mariena had been and her face was turned up to him the same way, he kissed her. The kiss turned into more than he had meant it to be, with Sia’s arms coming around his waist and her body leaning into his, pressing him back against the wall.

He was the first to break it off, but Sia, still leaning against him, smiled up into his face with a sigh of satisfaction. ‘There now,’ she said. ‘That’s better.’ 

This is the second in the series of books by Margaret Frazer in which Joliffe takes over from Dame Frevisse, and it follows straight on from A Play of Isaac. The players – now Lord Lovell’s Players – are sent by their new patron to entertain the guests at the wedding of Sir Edward Deneby’s daughter Mariena. A wedding gift.

But there is more to it than that. Mariena’s previous fiancé had died in what may well have been suspicious circumstances, and Lord Lovell for one is suspicious enough to want to know more. So he commissions Joliffe, whose powers of observation and deduction he has come to respect, to see if all is as well beneath the surface as appearances may lead one to believe.

I like these Joliffe books very much. I prefer them to her other, Dame Frevisse, novels. Not only are they well-written and beautifully constructed (as are the Dame Frevisse novels, of course) but it is a sexy story, which the Frevisse stories definitely are not. Margaret Frazer seemed to find Joliffe liberating. Is it just that things happen to him that would never – could never – happen to Dame Frevisse?

Mariena, Sia tells him, ‘heats men to where they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Never satisfies them, just heats them. They’re easy to have then […] These past few years, while she’s had suitors here now and again, some of us have gathered a pretty lot of coins helping them ease their longings. If you know what I mean.’

He’d have to be both gelded and stupid not to know what she meant and he said, smiling, ‘I’m no wealthy suitor come to woo. I’ve no coins to give you.’

‘You’re fair-bodied enough with a face I don’t mind kissing’ – Sia slipped free of his hands, came close, and kissed him again to prove it – ‘that I’ll have you for my own pleasure and no need for coins.’

Enough was enough – ‘ [When Dame Frevisse had decided enough was enough, that was it. This, however, continues] and he’d not had nearly enough. ‘Where?’ he asked. ‘And when?’ Since here and now clearly did not suit.

‘Tonight after supper. There’s a loft above the cow-byre. Behind the stables. Can you find it?’

Or is it that identifying with her virile male hero, she sees the world quite differently. Suddenly the women are all sex-objects.

Joliffe is great, and I love the detailed background of medieval drama and stagecraft and the lives of the players.