Book review: Out of the Black Land

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.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the 2004 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the 2011 Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing and currently works as Director of Writers Victoria.
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2 Responses to Book review: Out of the Black Land

  1. I just posted a Greenwood review also! Totally agree, she is definitely an engaging writer.

    Hadn’t heard of this title – very interesting…


  2. Tien says:

    I’ve always been fascinated with ancient egypt setting in novels so I’m intrigued enough to want to pick this book up even though I’m not quite sure about the err, amount (?) of sex & same-sex & incest etc…

    Plus, I’ve read most of the other Kerry Greenwood’s novels except for few of the new ones (after reading them back to back in order, I had to take a break) and I quite enjoyed them.

    I see that The Half Child is your second novel (Congrats), I might see if Behind the Night Bazaar is available in my library whilst I look for this one 😉


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