“What is it?” Tuthmosis asked.
“An omen, your majesty. A dove flew over the courtyard.”
In ancient Egypt, doves aren’t associated with peace and happiness. The opposite in fact: they’re quite the gloomy portent. And rather aptly, in this case, as Tuthmosis drops dead mere moments after. It’s an event that causes just a wee bit of worry, as Tuthmosis, of course, is–or was–none other than the Pharaoh. In fact, he’s only just returned to Thebes after a lengthy series of battles along the Nile Delta. It seems that victory is fleeting.
The Pharoah’s death initially looks to be the fault of a viper bite, and Meneloto, the Pharaoh’s chief body guard comes under fire for his negligence. It’s a case that Chief Judge of Thebes Amerotke is willing enough to preside over–he suspects that Meneloto might be having an affair with his wife, and wouldn’t mind meting out a bit of justice. But further examination into the circumstances surrounding his sudden demise raise suspicions that something more sinister might be afoot. After all, any ruler has almost as many enemies as they do subjects:
“Sethos was only the tool, but who was the person pressing this case?” muses Amerotke. “Tuthmosis’ heir was only a boy, a mere child. So was it Hatusu [Hatsheput], Pharaoh’s wife? Or Rahimere the Grand Vizier? Or was General Omendap, Pharaoh’s commander, jealous of Meneloto? Or Bayletos, that cunning chief scribe of the House of Silver?”
However, the Pharaoh’s murder isn’t the only case that Amerotke has on his mind: he’s also troubled by a recent slew of locked-door thefts from royal graves, and has his suspicions that someone close to him might be at fault. These troubles are only augmented when a second body, that of an important military leader, turns up–also apparently caused by a viper bite. And so poor Amerotke finds himself creeping through tombs late at night, learning more about snakes than he ever wanted to, and becoming caught up in the midst of the power struggle between Queen Hatusu and Rahimere.
The Mask of Ra is the first in a series of ancient historical cozy mysteries from Paul Doherty, whose wide-ranging bibliography has touched on just about every historical context imaginable. Given his best-selling status and established pedigree in the genre, and the fact that I’m a bit of a sucker for all things Egypt, I had high hopes for this one–and indeed, went so far as picking up the next four books in the series when I bought it. Let’s just say that I’m glad they were second-hand purchases.
Though the book’s meant to be full of dastardly deeds and murder and intrigue, the setting is really just about all it has going for it. The mystery itself, though understandably limited by its historical context, to which Doherty says in the forward that he has been fairly faithful, is a bit of a shambles. To be honest, I had a difficult time in following the plot, in part because of the diluting effect of the POV switches between Amerotke and Hatusu. Though Hatusu looms large at the beginning of the book, she largely fades away by the end, making her inclusion as a point-of-view character questionable. I didn’t feel that they lent any depth to her character, either: rather, they often confused matters, in fact, and inf act I found it harder to believe the motivations behind her actions and character because of these brief visits into her point of view. However, even had the two points of view been condensed into one, the mystery remains unremarkable.
In large part this is due to Doherty’s writing, which is sadly devoid of life, and undermines a story that could easily be so very fascinating. Though we’re given plenty–and, oh, I mean plenty–of descriptions of daily life in Thebes, all of this detail remains purely descriptive. It’s difficult to become at all immersed in prose that trudges along with all the warmth and liveliness of a fusty old textbook (and not even a cursed one). Lists of jewellery and criminal punishments offer insight into a historical context, certainly, but they’re just that–lists. When every sentence begins with “the” and includes strings and strings of workmanlike descriptions, well, it’s a bit like reading an ancient stocktake sheet. Even Amerotke doesn’t add much to the proceedings: mostly he just bumbles around as though he’s a tourist intent on hitting all of his Lonely Planet Handbook’s top picks. I won’t get into the depiction of the dwarf character Shufoy, but suspect that some readers might be less than impressed by it.
Ancient Egypt is a well-mined (excavated?) territory when it comes to fiction–it’s a fascinating and evocative culture, and it’s little surprise that there’s no shortage of writers seeking to bring it to life once more. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t invite the sense of wonder that usually accompanies a journey back into ancient Thebes.
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