The Maya Papyrus by Richard Coady is an ebook available for only $3.20 at present. I decided to buy it before I finished the sample. At one point in this book, I was paging through my Kindle with one hand while stirring pasta sauce for dinner with the other. That, my friends, is engaging fiction.
In this novel, Akhenaten is shown as a madman, at first a pitiful, acromegalic child and then a cruel, bitter man, reliant upon secret police and a culture of fear. Coady has a gift for depicting the inner lives of men torn by duty, and doubting the heavens. In Yuya, particularly, he creates an affecting portrait of a man worn down by the demands of his position. Coady also excels at action scenes, and at the everyday shoves, barks and bites of daily life in ancient Egypt, the bitter and the sweet. The brief but affecting time spent with Hittite royalty, including the ill-fated Prince Zannanzash, was also excellent. Coady’s depiction of Tutankhamun as a complex character, not a naif, is also not something I have generally seen in fiction of this time.
The framing device is an old friend, the confessional false document (by which I do mean a plot device, and not a fake ID). Personally, I am very fond of false documents, and write them all the time for my own fiction, but they slip easily into anachronism, especially so for ancient times. We lack documentary evidence for a first-person narrative of candor and descriptive ability until much, much later, which is why that whole bicameral mind business got any traction. Still, as I say, I enjoy false documents more than otherwise, and expect them to have some flaws.
Where The Maya Papyrus falls down is in the plotting. At nearly every turn in The Maya Papyrus, the Most Villainous Thing is done by the Most Villainous Character. Eventually, you think, the Most Villainous Character can’t possibly get away with the Most Villainous Thing again, can he? And he does! More brazenly than he did the time before!
Half of the characters don’t have much agency to begin with, because they’re women – a very strange notion to have about the Amarna Period, or about ancient Egyptian women in general. Every single woman in this book is either passive or insufferable. Only one woman in Coady’s book seems to have any driving ambition of her own, and that is Thuya, the mother of Tiye and Ay. She is depicted as a domineering nag whose only concern is for the propagation and power of her family. To be fair, that is probably an accurate assessment of her, and of most highly-placed women at any given royal court.
But why is Thuya the only woman in this book who decides to want anything? None of the royal women in this story – not the prominent Tiye, not the smiting Nefertiti, not Ankhesenamun who plotted to place a Hittite prince on the throne beside her* – has a single idea about governance or religion on her own. All of them, according to Coady, originally came from one or another of the men beside her. To imagine that this happened in the Amarna Period, out of all eras of Egyptian history, is to cut yourself badly on Occam’s Razor.
Nonetheless, I recommend this book, and I dare say I’ll go with Coady’s next as well, which is to be set in ancient Greece. If you need to read an absorbing, intrigue-packed book about ancient Egypt, and you need to get it right now on your iPhone, this one is here for you.
* Unless she didn’t do that, but in that case, either Nefertiti or her daughter Meritaten probably did it.