In 2012, an investigation led by Dr. Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, discovered that the mummy of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III (r. 1187/6- 1155/4 BCE) showed signs that his throat had been slit. Before then, it had been debated whether this warrior king had actually been killed in the so-called harem conspiracy. Madison imagines the plotting behind the assassination, led here by Queen Teye, one of Pharaoh’s three wives, who hopes to put her weak son Pentawere on the throne.
The chapters, all told from a different point of view, begin with the princess Duatentopet’s premonitions of danger while Pharaoh smugly surveys his domain. Some chapters show how key figures are drawn into the plot, including military commander Peyes, high priest Huy, physician Iroi, and the court magician Perekamenef. Others touch on the external events destabilizing Ramesses III’s reign, from the invasion of the Sea Peoples to the riots by workmen deprived of rations. Together, the varied perspectives provide a fascinating cross-section of Egyptian life during this fabled time.
Though in some places the prose is as stiff and ornamented as a tomb painting—and Queen Teye in particular never develops more than one dimension—the book is for the most part engagingly fluid and readable, with lively dialogue. Its most alluring aspects are the vivid picture it builds of daily, material life in the New Kingdom and its understanding of the invisible world that surrounded and structured Egyptian life, a culture with an advanced grasp of medicine, a firm belief in magic, and an utterly unique spiritual paradigm. Madison, whose debut novel was the YA time-travel fantasy Fabric of a Generation, proves an author of far-ranging interests and depth.