The Amarna Period: A God Against the Gods by Allen Drury (1976)

Upon looking into the matter, I find that Allen Drury is not the man I would have expected to write a novel of ancient Egypt. He was an American journalist, anti-communist, and prominent observer of the Senate, whose most famous novel Advise and Consent was a dark Cold War tale of legislative intrigue. According to Wikipedia, he was a prolific author of nonfiction and the kind of novels that used to come in big chunky yellow-edged squares, mostly on contemporary American subjects, but also science fiction and two novels of ancient Egypt, of which this is one.

And yet – how could this not be someone I would expect to write a novel of ancient Egypt? That covers anyone. Anyone who wants to write, who can sling some prose together, who was ever enchanted by a glossy coffee-table book of the wonders of ancient Egypt considers themselves eminently qualified to whomp out such a novel. For proof, I direct you to the entire Kindle historical fiction section.

This is not necessarily a terrible thing, when it is combined with genuine talent and followed up with diligent research. Drury appears to have written a good deal of dreadful, sexist, didactically anti-Communist political fiction, but those flaws and obsessions do not map directly onto his work in A God Against the Gods, with the exception of homophobia. Drury did his homework as best he could with the information available to Egyptology in the 1970s, although anachronisms slip through here and there.

The novel itself is an engaging read, even though it relies on a device I no longer trust – the thoughtful first-person narration by powerful figures. You get this with a lot of period pieces about royalty – “I, Cleopatra,” and so forth. It certainly isn’t bad in and of itself – recently, I have enjoyed Juliet Grey’s Marie Antoinette trilogy, which uses just this device. But it’s frequently used with a lack of imagination as to its very premise, viz. and to wit, why should these people be so smart? Why should princes and princesses – the privileged, the powerful, the carefully blinkered – make engaging, descriptive, lyrical narrators? Can you see someone writing a purple historical novel from the sensitive, nuanced viewpoint of a Kardashian sister? How much more of a soul was Nefertiti? How do you know?

Drury’s book uses this device, with repeating and differing viewpoints, which to me at least mitigates the artificiality of the device by calling attention to it. The book makes a decent read, to be sure, but it has dated considerably in its information and its craft. At the last the book leaves the reader hanging for its sequel, as it ends with Akhenaten and Smenkhara having declared themselves double Pharaohs and consorts, to the horror of all. (This is certainly a theory in circulation.) I am unsure if I will check out the sequel, Return to Thebes, but I am tempted to, which is at least some kind of recommendation. All in all, I consider that it is probably one of the more broadly scoped and lucid Amarna novels, but not necessarily the best.

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