Out of the Black Land, Kerry Greenwood’s first foray into ancient Egypt, also the first offering from new kids on the publishing block Clan Destine Press, is a sexy and sensational read, peopled with engaging characters in exquisite, exotic settings.
The book is set during Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty in Egypt, which Greenwood ‘boldly and with some justification’ estimates at 1450 BC. Following the death of his father Amenhotep III with whom he has co-reigned, Amenhotep IV — deformed and impotent, though married to famed beauty Nefertiti — re-names himself Akhnaten and sets about replacing Egypt’s polytheistic pantheon with the sole worship of the Aten or Sun God. In combination with his economic mismanagement, Akhnaten’s religious fervour threatens the fabric Egyptian society and the security of the Empire. But can those who would protect Egypt penetrate the powerful clutch of corrupt officials who surround the Pharoah?
The story is told through the eyes of two characters: Mutnodjme, haf-sister to Nefertiti, scholar and one-time priestess of Isis before the imposition of monotheism; and Ptah-hotep, the Great Royal Scribe, plucked from obscurity on the whim of Amenhotep IV.
It is a ripping yarn. Kerry is such an engaging writer, she doesn’t describe Ancient Egypt so much as plunge the reader into it. I wasn’t at all sure if I’d enjoy a book so far removed from what I normally read, but after a slightly slow start I was hooked.
In an interview on Joy FM, Kerry describes how the story was inspired by a visit to the Valley of the Kings and the tomb of a great judge decorated with images of ‘two men making love in the reeds, along with a whole lot of beautiful paintings of people making wine’. She was taken with the idea of writing a same-sex love story set in a time and place where homosexuality was considered neither sinful nor surprising.
The result is a very sexy read, with the sex being both bountiful and diverse. There’s straight sex, gay sex, lesbian sex and transvestism; orgies and ménage a trois; sex between family members — father with daughters and daughters-in-law (those Pharoahs were a pretty incestuous lot) — ritual sex and sexual abuse, not to mention sex with surrogates to signify consummation of marriage. Phew! No wonder Out of the Black Land kept me up at night.
I’d like to think that reading Out of the Black Land has better prepared me for the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs Exhibition coming soon to the Melbourne Museum. Certainly, I will understand more of the history and symbols. But as Kerry points out in the Afterward, the study of Egyptology is full of contradictions, not to mention the cultural and religious bias invested in different interpretations of the historical record. I for one am glad she didn’t let the inexact ‘science’ of Egyptology stand in the way of a good story.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that I have met Kerry on several occasions and while we are not intimates, she did puff my most recent novel, The Half-Child, calling it ‘clever and funny’. I was so proud, I wanted to get a T-shirt printed with ‘Kerry Greenwood thinks I’m clever and funny’ on it.
This review has been submitted as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.