* Prices may differ from that shown
The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran is not the kind of book I would usually choose to read. I enjoy historical fiction, but have never previously read one set in Ancient Egypt, preferring to stick with novels set around the British monarchy like those written by Philippa Gregory. However, I was swayed towards this book by its pretty front cover and a back cover recommendation by Diana Gabaldon, the author of my favourite Outlander book series.
Initially, I was slightly put off by the Egyptian names, as it took a while to get the pronunciation worked out in my head. But a couple of chapters in, this became easier and the names were no longer an issue.
I was soon drawn into the story, as the exotic setting is well-described and bewitching and the characters are beautifully written and engaging. The story revolves around Nefertari and Ramesses and is written from Nefertari's point of view. At the beginning of the novel, she is a young girl at the Pharaoh's court. Her aunt Nefertiti was known as the Heretic Queen and this family history blackens Nefertari's name, so that she is feared and even hated by many people.
Ramesses becomes Pharaoh as a teenager and is drawn towards Nefertari, but as she is unpopular, he is encouraged to marry the beautiful Iset. The palace is split into factions in some ways, with those supporting Iset and those supporting Nefertari. Of course, each side has their reasons for the support and many intrigues reveal themselves over the pages of the book.
Iset is selfish and not very clever, so relies on her beauty to charm and beguile everyone. Nefertari however is extremely well-educated and especially in foreign languages and this skill is a valuable one in Ancient Egypt, where there are many nationalities who could challenge the Pharaoh's power. Nefertari's expertise is soon invaluable in the palace, as she can translate scrolls and inform the Pharaoh of the plans of their potential enemies.
But will Nefertari ever be accepted by the population? Will she ever be able to shake off the bad name of her family and be accepted in her own right?
The story is an interesting one. It never rushes along at a very fast pace, but is steady enough to keep the pages turning. I am not a reader who likes too much descriptive prose and Michelle Moran gets this just right. The descriptions are vivid and evocative, with the bright colours of the clothing shining through and the smells of the food and oils permeating the text.
While the main story of the novel is essentially a romance, it never becomes sickly-sweet or overly sentimental. There is drama and intrigue, plotting and secrecy, plus the politics and war of the time to keep you interested.
I liked the use of the terminology of the time too, using certain words for things like 'cat' (I love the cat!) or 'mother' as well as using authentic words to describe the headdresses and types of clothing worn. There is a glossary for the terms used at the back of the book, but I didn't really use this, as the meanings were usually obvious in context.
There are many characters that were beautifully written. Besides the main two, there are probably another four that I thought were excellent and would love to read more about in other novels. The Heretic Queen is Moran's second novel and I intend to now read her first book Nefertiti.
Overall, I highly recommend this novel. It is fictional, but based on history and I felt it was educational and informative and would be especially interesting to anyone who finds Egyptian history intriguing. Moran includes a four-page Historical Note after the novel, which is worth reading, as it explains the historical facts behind the novel and where the fiction took over.
I really enjoyed this novel, it was a different direction for my reading but I will read more of this type in the future.
A version of this review was published on The Bookbag website and is also featured on Michelle Moran's official website.