By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff | December 6, 2008
The mortuary temple of Queen Nefertari is the largest and most awe-inspiring in Egypt’s Valley of the Queens. On one wall her husband, the great pharaoh Ramesses II, wrote, “My love is unique and none can rival her. . . . Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart.”
Around this real-life tribute, author Michelle Moran convincingly weaves an epic love story, a gorgeously detailed history lesson, and a gripping tale of political intrigue in her sophomore novel, “The Heretic Queen.”
This story picks up a few years after her first novel, “Nefertiti,” ends. Reviled by her people for her role in the near-ruin of Egypt and dubbed the Heretic Queen for turning her back on the traditional gods during her reign, Queen Nefertiti has been murdered; most of her family has perished in a suspicious fire. The sole survivor is her namesake niece, Nefertari, who lives in the shadows of the royal court, her family’s contributions to the country stripped from the official records.
The orphaned princess is taken in by Pharaoh Seti I and becomes close friends with Ramesses II, the heir to the throne of Egypt. Her earliest memory sets the tone for rest of her life: “If the gods cannot recognize your names,” an old priestess warns, “they will never hear your prayers.”
Though accomplished, intelligent, and the niece of a queen, Nefertari is considered unfit to share the throne not only because of her family connections but also her resemblance to her disgraced aunt. “You know, he might have chosen you,” a friend tells her, “if not for your family.” Instead, the rising king marries Iset, the granddaughter of a harem girl, endangering Nefertari’s position in the court. The power struggle for her future – and that of Egypt – begins.
Nefertari’s rival isn’t Iset as much as Iset’s benefactor: the young pharaoh’s aunt, Henuttawy, the beautiful and greedy high priestess of Isis who is using Iset as her own pawn in a complicated political game. Woserit, the high priestess of Hathor, and Henuttawy’s sister, takes Nefertari under her wing, positioning her to win Ramesses’s heart and rule Egypt as his queen.
But there are other obstacles to overcome, and one of them seems insurmountable: Though beloved by the pharaoh, Nefertari is reviled by his people because of her link to Nefertiti. Henuttawy capitalizes on this at every turn, accusing Nefertari of causing everything from a long drought to the death of Iset’s firstborn, encouraging the people to turn on the young princess, trying to hang the label of heretic on her as well.
Like Moran’s first book, “The Heretic Queen” is rooted in meticulous research; her fictional characters are based on actual people and historically documented facts, which makes the story resonate on many levels. Moran’s careful attention to detail and her artful storytelling skills bring these people – pharaohs, princesses, and queens; petitioners, servants, and soldiers – to vivid life, imbuing ancient history with suspense and urgency.