OUT OF THE BLACK LAND - Kerry Greenwood
It's always interesting to hear where the idea for a book came from. Kerry Greenwood was on a tour in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt when an inscription on the wall of a tomb triggered a desire to write a same-sex love story in a time and place where it wasn't something that was surprising, noticeable, wrong, or scandalous. What she has actually written is an elaborate, detailed, and fascinating story of an Ancient Egypt as a society which differs dramatically from current day mores.
I've never thought of myself as much of a fan of Ancient "epic" novels, but what I actually don't like is novels that read like research projects. That's not to say that I don't like learning things, but there's a world of difference between being told a story and reading a dissertation. Interestingly Greenwood bemoans the general state of Egyptology in the Afterword to the book, and whilst she's obviously had one serious slog to do the research for this book, she delivers the details in a very engaging style.
OUT OF THE BLACK LAND is a very elaborate book, taking the reader into the royal houses of Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt. It does this via two main narrators - Ptah-hotep, Royal Scribe, lover of Kheperren; and Mutnodjme, royal princess, sister to Nefertiti, lover of Ptah-hotep, wife of General Horemheb. The two main characters tell the story of events around the eventual death of Amenhotep III and the rise of Amenhotep IV who believes totally in monotheism. Amenhotep IV is a strangely afflicted man, impotent and increasing quite mad, he is prepared to overrule longheld religious beliefs ruthlessly. As the new Pharoah causes havoc in the land, Ptah-hotep and Mutnodjme deal with the consequences in their own personal lives.
Ancient Egypt Royalty had a considerably different attitude to sex than nowadays, and in OUT OF THE BLACK LAND there is a complicated series of love and sexual partnerships, marriages and family relationships. Ensuring an ongoing line for the Pharoahs was paramount and arrangements were made that would be considered extremely unorthodox these days, as would the extensive and seemingly incestous marriages that were established. As confrontational as this may be for some readers, it did seem to provide protection and support for people who would otherwise have been vulnerable, to say nothing of a society hierarchy and structure that everyone was used to and comfortable within.
OUT OF THE BLACK LAND does concentrate on the Royal houses and their connections, with little or no reference to the day-to-day lives of ordinary Egyptians as it charts the rise and fall of a despot, interwoven with tales of power games, intrigue and ongoing love and commitment that meld into the day to day life of these people. The same-sex love story that originally triggered Greenwood's desire to write this novel is simply a part of the overall story. It sits within all the other tales of ongoing love and support, the rise and fall of individuals, and the turmoil of a society. The lives and fortunes of Ptah-hotep and Kheperren, Mutnodjme and Horemheb are inextricably linked with that of Egypt as a whole. As society falls into turmoil, so do they. As society settles and matures, so do they. And that is probably the underlying story of OUT OF THE BLACK LAND. Greenwood writes about a world in which a same-sex love story isn't particularly exceptional, but she has created an elaborate, detailed yet extremely readable and accessible story about a society peopled with some exceptional characters.
(Disclaimer: Clan Destine Press(link is external) is run by friend and colleague Lindy Cameron and I'm lucky enough to wrangle the web site for her).
Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt is peaceful and prosperous under the dual rule of the Pharaohs Amenhotep III and IV, until the younger Pharaoh begins to dream new and terrifying dreams.
Ptah-hotep, a young peasant boy studying to be a scribe, wants to live a simple life in a Nile hut with his lover Kheperren and their dog Wolf. But Amenhotep IV appoints him as Great Royal Scribe. Surrounded by bitterly envious rivals and enemies, how long will Ptah-hotep survive?
The child-princess Mutnodjme sees her beautiful sister Nefertiti married off to the impotent young Amenhotep. But Nefertiti must bear royal children, so the ladies of the court devise a shocking plan.
Kheperren, meanwhile, serves as scribe to the daring teenage General Horemheb. But while the Pharaoh’s shrinking army guards the Land of the Nile from enemies on every border, a far greater menace impends.
For, not content with his own devotion to one god alone, the newly-renamedAkhnaten plans to suppress the worship of all other gods in the Black Land.
His horrified court soon realise that the Pharaoh is not merely deformed, but irretrievably mad; and that the biggest danger to the Empire is in the royal palace itself.