The Amarna Period: Out of the Black Land, by Kerry Greenwood (2011)

One of my problems is that I am an essentially kind person. Or, to put it more baldly, I am a complete creampuff. I have found many more novels and short fictions of the Amarna period than I can bear to review. They are generally self-published and redolent of Dark Intrigue and romance and so forth. I don’t like to punch down. There seems little point in informing the world that a terrible self-published historical novel is in fact terrible. Most of everything is terrible. The world is awash in godawful books. A review that pans a book should at least have a reason for panning that book. The reader should require warning against the book for some reason – the book is overly publicized, perhaps, or the author is pushing forth a series of ideas that only seem to stand up.

Why do we write historical novels? Why do we read them? People want to see the past as it truly was – or rather, they want to see it as they believe it was, which is generally through a quartz-thick lens of their own historical perspective, from their own point in time. What fascinates me about reading and reviewing historical fiction is the possibility of finding an author who uses their own historical perspective transposed skillfully onto an extrapolation of the past. Mary Renault, for example, used a certain bitter British toughness to bring the ancient world to life in this way.

Out of the Black Land has an extremely promising beginning, with a sweet, well-drawn gay romance that will center the rest of the book. The gay romance does in fact have a basis in what we know of Egyptian society. What doesn’t is most of Greenwood’s other ideas. She rewrites the Amarna period to feature a female-only cult of the Phoenix, led by Nefertiti. In the book, the Atenist religion is otherwise misogynist, and Akhetaten was a terrible place to be a woman. Of all the strange conjectures I’ve read about the period, this seems the least likely. The book furthermore suffers from that odd slipperiness of characterization that appears when an author posits that people can just go right on ahead and have sex with people they like, of any gender or status, and be happy to forget about it later. It does not measure up.

This is the sort of ridiculous book that is a delight to read, easy to eat up, and for that reason alone I might recommend it. It certainly got me to try Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher detective series, which was fun right up until I got sick of the Honourable Mary Sue running rings around all the policemen in Australia. Again, we cannot best history. We can only do our best to see it as well as our perspective allows us.

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