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There are differences of opinion regarding this book. A friend of mine found it slow and often boring and commented that the author had managed to waste a great idea. I had not then read the book; I had, however, been reading Confessions of a Pagan Nun, which I found superb (I must post a review of that here, too) and it occurred to me that the two books had a great deal in common. Both were set in the 6th Century and both depicted the Church Militant stamping out the still-glowing embers of the indigenous religion, in one case the Catholicism of Rome crushing the last practitioners of Celtic druidism, in the other the Orthodoxy of Byzantium persecuting the few remaining adepts of the ancient Isis-cult.
It is true that it is slow. Christian Jacq is a slow writer. In the Ramses series, it takes him five books to tell a story that any other writer would have told in one. But he has his good side.
For a start, he is an expert on ancient Egypt.
So I read For the Love of Philae.
One problem is the translation, which is often wordy and clumsy, and occasionally absurd. "I know how to oar" says the general, leaping into the boat. The priestess "dialogued with the spirit that …" The bishop was "wearing his long red dress". "You had the impudence of reading" a private document, the Prefect protests. "Half the adepts remained prostrated, sitting on their heels," we are told, and "The community chanted a slow introverted psalm" and, of the High Priestess, that "a green hue enhanced the curb of her eyebrows". Sometimes, as in "You will have face a tempest" (stet), the problem may be a typo, but it is all very careless and off-putting. The editor is quite as much to blame here as the translator.
That said, and apart from that, I found the book fascinating. I never once wanted to lay it aside; quite the contrary. I realised immediately that I knew little or nothing about sixth-century Egypt (or, thinking about it, sixth-century Greece); now I do, and I learnt in (as Heinlein once said) "the nicest possible way". I have an image in my mind of one small part of Egypt in 534-5 AD, and of one small group of people who lived there.
The place is Elephantine, an island in the Nile, far to the south, close to the first cataract:a historic island, once the home of the only Jewish temple outside Jerusalem and the heart of a heretical form of diaspora-Judaism; and also the heart and home of Isis worship, where the mystery of Isis and Osiris (the dying-rising god) was celebrated. (The picture shows the Temple of Philae as it is now.)
The people are the High Priestess, Isis, direct descendant of Cleopatra and the pharaohs (and so beautiful that she is held by all and sundry to be the incarnation of the goddess Isis herself), her lover, the new young High Priest, Sabni, and other adepts of the Isis cult that still – no, not flourishes, but at least survives intact, a pure flame still burning, on this island.
Opposed to them are Theodore, the Christian bishop, childhood friend of Sabni; and Maximin, the prefect of the province, appointed by the Emperor in Constantinople (these were the early years of Justinian and Theodora).
Bishop Theodore protects the Isis temple and cult for Sabni's sake, pretending that it does not exist. Sabni's side of the bargain is that they should keep a very low profile.
Then the Prefect falls in love with Isis. And the auguries are that for the second year in succession the Nile will not flood adequately and there will be famine in the province; the bishop's prayers are failing to move the ancient gods that, the people believe, still control the great river: only Isis, the people believe, can help them now. And the Prefect, Maximin, agrees with them.
A poor translation but a good story, memorable characters that you can't help loving – or hating – and a really great setting.
A short novel – 30,000 words or so, hardly more than a novella – by one of the grand masters of the genre.
In Thebes of the Hundred Gates, the Time Service in Home Era (like NOW) sends a young "volunteer" (none of the more experienced operatives will touch it) back to ancient Egypt in search of two of their own who overshot the mark and got lost in time a year and a half earlier. Now Service investigators have managed to pinpoint them in Thebes – Thebes at the height of its splendour, under Amenhotep III. That's the pharaoh whose son, Amenhotep IV, is better known as the great heretic Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti. (I have a couple of books about those two I want to review here some time.)
Edward Davis materialises in the heat and dirt of a secluded back alley and immediately falls ill. Not because of the filth ...
Two donkeys stood just in front of him, chewing on straw, studying him with no great curiosity. A dozen yards or so behind him was some sort of rubble-heap, filling the alley almost completely. His sandal-clad left foot was inches from a row of warm green turds that one of the donkeys must have laid down not very long before. To the right flowed a thin runnel of brownish water so foul that it seemed to him he could make out the movements of giant microorganisms in it, huge amoebas and paramecia, grim predatory rotifers swimming amgrily against the tide.
But he had been innoculated against anything Thebes might come up with. No, it was temporal shock – it's like "a parachute jump without the parachute", they had told him, jumping so far uptime, "but if you live through the first five minutes you'll be okay." He had been back 600 years before, but never anything like this.
He loses consciousness, and when he wakes up, finds himself in a temple, and in the capable hands of Nefret, Priestess of Isis. However, she seems only to want to be rid of him. As soon as he recovers, she arranges for him to live and work among the embalmers, the mummifiers, in the necropolis on the other side of the Nile.
A refuge, yes. But he is little more than a slave there, and he has only thirty days – twenty-eight left now – before his rendez-vous for pick-up at exactly midday back in that alley. How can he hope to track down the missing time travellers from there, on the wrong side of the river?
A wonderful glimpse, not only of the world of the future where people travel uptime and back downtime – it is still, obviously, the early days of time travel – but also of the past, of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, teeming with people, all of them, in the childhood of the world, concerned with only one thing: death, and the afterlife; and reincarnation.
This little book is perfect.
I blacked out my card on Dec. 19 using the "activity" entry for the Kwanzaa square, but since thereafter I did read a book set (partially) in Africa, too, here's my "bonus entry" post ... sorry for reporting in belatedly; blame it on BookLikes posting issues and a surfeit of things going on all at the same time in my life at present. :(
Not that it still seems to matter greatly to begin with, alas ... (sigh).
Der Weltensammler (The Collector of Worlds) is a novelized biography of 19th century polymath and explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton, who traveled widely in India, the Middle East and Africa, visiting Mecca (disguised as an Arab) and seeking -- partially successfully, though he didn't know it -- the source of the Nile (he did make it to Lake Victoria, but failed to confirm that the Nile actually does originate from there). He is best remembered today for his translation of The 1001 Nights.
Interesting, though quite obviously largely fictitious insights into a fascinating life, and a voyage back through time to the Orient, Africa, and British Empire of the 19th century.
Snow Globes: Reads
I have read many fantastic historical fiction books set in ancient Egypt, but unfortunately this was not one of them. I don't think the writer did any research and if he did, it was cursory at best. Granted, I only read about 15% of this book, but that was too much. Simplistic writing that seemed done by an elementary school student, dialogue that was unrealistic for the time, bland characters...it was a mess. I just couldn't take it anymore.
Not recommended at all!!