Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mara, Daughter of the Nile (book) by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Synopsis:

This book takes place in ancient Egypt. Hatshepsut is essentially the pharaoh, and there are people who are not happy about this and would prefer to see her brother Thutmose on the throne instead (I have read that there are great historical inaccuracies at work here, but I don't know much about Egyptian history myself and this is what happened in the book.).

Mara, a clever, blue-eyed slave, could care less about any of that until she is sold to a scary guy who works for Hatshepsut. He promises her eventual freedom if she will act as a spy and uncover the plots and people working against Hatshepsut. Inanni, a Canaanite princess who is supposed to marry Thutmose, is arriving soon, and Mara will be acting as her interpreter - in this way, Mara will be in the perfect position to observe the goings on in the palace.

Before Mara even gets to the palace, however, she winds up with a second master: Sheftu, the young man leading the rebels. Sheftu thinks Mara is merely a runaway slave. He and Mara are attracted to each other and appreciate each others' cleverness, but they both have more important things to think about. Sheftu believes that the only way Egypt can be saved is if Thutmose is put on the throne. Mara has to figure out how to serve two masters and come out of it all with both her life and her freedom.

When Mara and Sheftu start to fall in love, the goals they're working towards end up at risk. Can everything still work out, and can their feelings for each other survive all the lies and danger?

Commentary:

I first read this book when I was a teen. For the longest time, all I could remember about it was that the main character got whipped within an inch of her life near the end and that her shoulders were still healing when the romantic storyline was wrapped up. I also remembered not quite liking Sheftu, but I couldn't remember why. A comment on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books reminded me of the book's title and author. My first thought was, "Must request this via ILL!" So I did.

Even though it's dangerous, I like taking the occasional trip down reading memory lane - sometimes I still enjoy the books I loved when I was younger, and sometimes I can barely finish them. For the most part, I enjoyed this one. Although I think I disliked Sheftu a bit more than I would have when I was younger, all the intrigue was a lot of fun, despite some bits that strained my suspension of disbelief, and I still thought Mara was an awesome heroine.

While I was reading the book, I found myself thinking that the dialogue read like something out of an old high fantasy novel - only instead of "By the Great Grimor," or whatever, you get "By Set," "By Amon," and "By the Blessed Son." I checked the copyright date and, sure enough, the book was originally published in 1953. Thank goodness I didn't know that when I was younger, or I would have avoided this book simply because it's older than my parents.

Prior to rereading this, I wouldn't have been able to tell you why I enjoyed it when I was younger - I couldn't  remember enough about it. I can now say with relative certainty that my younger self enjoyed this book 1) because Mara is awesome, 2) because all the intrigue is exciting, and 3) because there is romance. Now that I'm older, #1 and #2 still stand strong, but I'm a bit more iffy about #3.

Mara is a slave, only 17 years old, but she never cowers fearfully from anybody - she's more likely to snarl her defiance, or glare daggers. She knows that no one in the world is going to come to save her, so she has to save herself. She doesn't go looking to become a double agent but ends up becoming one because she has to, and also because it keeps her options open. Sheftu can talk all he wants about his work being for the good of Egypt - Mara, as she is throughout most of the book, is only looking out for herself. However, she's so clever and charming that you can't help but like her.

Mara might have been fun to read about all on her own, but all the intrigue gave her a chance to shine. Every time things got more dangerous and complicated for her, she used her wits and charm to talk her way out of things. And yet, she wasn't supremely confident - she knew that, if she messed up, she could die. As just a slave, she lied and stole things (there's a fun scene in which she steals honey cakes, eating them right in front of the guy she's stealing them from without him ever realizing what's going on), but it wasn't until she became a spy that she started dealing with people who were more of a match for her.

One of those people is Sheftu. On the one hand, he's lived with dangerous court politics all his life, so he lives and breathes lies and treachery. On the other hand, his entire rebel operation seems to be built on a house of cards. Despite knowing that spies are all around, he takes Mara at face value and just assumes that she's a runaway slave - that seemed rather stupid to me. Then there's at least one person in his group that couldn't look more untrustworthy if he tried, and yet Sheftu trusts him enough that it's almost his downfall. It's amazing the rebel group made it as far as it did before things started to unravel.

Although I enjoyed the intrigue and adventure in and of itself, I couldn't really buy what Sheftu was trying to accomplish. Yes, Hatshepsut seemed like a scary woman, liable to bankrupt Egypt - but, quite frankly, Thutmose didn't seem any more appealing. He was an arrogant, frightening man whose one moment of gentleness was after Mara was almost whipped to death protecting Sheftu and the other rebels. I suppose the main reason I never warmed to Thutmose was because of his treatment of Inanni, the Canaanite princess he was supposed to marry. As far as Thutmose was concerned, Inanni was nothing more than a fat, stupid cow, completely beneath him. Granted, Mara's initial thoughts about Inanni weren't very nice either, but she did eventually see her as a sweet person who could be a good friend - it irked me to see Thutmose treating Inanni like dirt, and his treatment of her made it that much more difficult to see why Sheftu would support Thutmose so fanatically. I ended up just telling myself that all Sheftu really wanted was to get Hatshepsut off the throne, and Thutmose was the only possible replacement.

Earlier, I wrote that one of the reasons my younger self liked this book was because of the romance. Now, you would never have gotten me to admit this - I couldn't even admit to myself that one of the things I looked for in books was a romantic element. Even so, Sheftu, with his confidence, intelligence, and charisma, would have had me cheering. That said, now that I'm older Sheftu smacks too much of "old school romance hero" and Mara's reaction to him is a bit annoying.

Sheftu is the sort who'll announce things like "I vow, I mean to kiss you" (I don't think this line is actually in the book, but it reads like something that could have been), which would piss Mara off, and then she'd get pissed some more if he didn't actually follow through. I already mentioned that one of the main reasons why I liked this book was that Mara is awesome. Unfortunately, around Sheftu she becomes slightly less awesome. For a good chunk of the book, their relationship seems really unequal. As a slave, Mara doesn't really have a chance with Sheftu, a member of the nobility - Sheftu could easily seduce her and then leave her to fend for herself. As strong as Mara seems in just about every other respect, she seems almost powerless against Sheftu, and, for the longest time, there's not much evidence that this runs both ways.

McGraw eventually shows that Sheftu thinks about Mara as much as Mara thinks about him, and she even takes his incredible confidence down a notch by having him worry about and be jealous of Mara's flirtations with others, such as a young guardsman she seduces so as to be able to easily enter and leave the palace. Then McGraw shakes him up some more by having him almost die in an awesome grave robbery scene - I love that scene, you can practically feel the terror and tension as the group worries about their air supply, how long their torch will last, and whether or not their crime will earn them the wrath of the dead.

Still, as a noble, Sheftu always has more power in this relationship than Mara. Mara even voices this when Sheftu finally, finally tells her his feelings, and she reminds him that there could never be anything lasting between them because of the difference in their statuses. It's only when Sheftu does his version of the "romance novel grovel," when he knowingly puts himself in a situation that could get himself killed in order to try to save Mara and make up for having a part in her ending up in that situation in the first place, that things become a little more even - Sheftu may be a noble, but he's no more likely to survive at the hands of his enemies than Mara.

And the bit that made me still dislike him, years after I read the book and long after I could remember why I disliked him? Moments after confessing his feelings to Mara, Sheftu learns of her duplicity. Rather than considering Mara's position, that she is a slave with no options, no guarantee of protection from anyone, Sheftu immediately succumbs to rage and plans to kill her. The "romance novel grovel" was nice and all, but it still wasn't quite enough to make me forgive him, even though Mara managed to (and, in fact, never really blamed him for anything in the first place).

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, in large part due to the fact that the intrigue, the strongest part of the book, was the primary focus. Had the romance been more prominent, I'm not sure I could have liked the book as much, due to my dislike for the power imbalance in Sheftu and Mara's relationship. I've read that the book's presentation of Egyptian history is pretty inaccurate, but I don't know enough about Egyptian history to say whether this is true or not. From my perspective, the book's setting was a plus, because it was unusual (I think this is the only book I've ever read set in ancient Egypt) and seemed very vivid.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - This is the first book (in terms of publication dates) in a fairly long fantasy series, and the first book in a sub-trilogy in that series. Talia has grown up in a restrictive, insular society and dreams of getting to see the legendary Heralds and their Companions (snow-white, intelligent horse-like beings). One day, after a disastrous meeting with some of her family members, Talia comes across a Companion who seems to have lost his Herald. This is the start of an adventure that leads Talia to new friends and gets her tangled up in dangerous political intrigue. Those who'd like more adventure and intrigue with a dash of romance might want to try this. Talia doesn't start off as strong as Mara, but she grows into her own as the story progresses.
  • Dragonflight (book) by Anne McCaffrey - It's been ages since I last read this book, but here's what I remember about it. This is the first book in a series that feels like fantasy, although later books reveal it to be sci-fi. The people on the planet of Pern are protected from dangerous, burning "thread" by dragonriders and their dragons. However, it's been a long time since the last threadfall, and people don't think they need dragonriders any longer. A dragonrider named F'lar believes the next threadfall will happen soon, and he's desperate to make sure that the next Queen dragon that hatches is matched up with a strong rider. He believes that Lessa, a dirty, ragged slave/servant, may be the person he's been looking for. Those who'd like another strong heroine who's had to learn to survive without anyone's protection might want to try this. Like Mara, Daughter of the Nile, there is adventure and a bit of (somewhat dated) romance.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol. 1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono; The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - This began as a series of light novels (Sea of Shadow is the first) and was turned into an anime that covers the events of several of the books. The books don't all have the same main character (in fact, one of the later books takes place 500 years or so before the main character of the first book was even born), although certain characters make repeated appearances. This is a fantasy series that takes place in the world of the Twelve Kingdoms. Each kingdom is ruled by a ruler who is chosen by the heavens via a kirin, who then acts as the ruler's adviser. Sea of Shadow is about the new ruler of one of those kingdoms, who, due to an accident, ended up growing up in our world. When she is brought back to the world of the Twelve Kingdoms, she is immediately separated from her kirin and must figure out what's going on and what she needs to do on her own. The anime chooses to focus on her and shows her progression from confused and frightened girl to powerful queen who has gained the respect of her people. Those who'd like another story featuring lots of adventure and intrigue might want to try this.
  • Ever After (live action movie) - This movie, starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, is a retelling of Cinderella. Those who'd like another story with a fairly strong heroine (who's not as awesome as Mara, in my opinion) and romance (to a greater degree than McGraw's book) might want to try this. There are some events in this movie that remind me a great deal of certain events in Mara, Daughter of the Nile.
  • The Great Queen Seondeok (live action TV series) - I've been watching this series on Hulu and must admit I haven't actually finished it. In my defense, it's very long - 60+ hours, I think. In this Korean historical drama, several generations of the royal family in Silla find themselves tangled in political intrigue, with a cunning woman named Misil as their opponent. It is prophesied that the queen will give birth to the one who will finally defeat Misil, but then she gives birth to twin girls. If both of the twins live, the king will never have a living heir, but he can't bring himself to kill either one, so he sends one away. That daughter, Deokman, eventually travels back to Silla in search of her father, not knowing that her quest will get her tangled up in political intrigue that began before she was born. Those who'd like another historical story with a bit of romance, lots of adventure, and a strong, street smart heroine who must hide her identity might want to try this.

5 comments:

  1. Great review, however, if you feel like this book needs a lot more brushing up, why not write a fanfiction about it?

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  2. The only part about this book that I didn't think was very strong was Mara and Sheftu's romance, and that's mainly because aspects of it are a bit dated. There's definitely nothing that gives me an urge to write fanfiction, even if it weren't for the fact that I learned a long time ago that I am a reader, not a writer. I suppose I could see hunting down someone else's fanfiction, though. But, like I said, I actually did like this book overall.

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  3. OMG!!!!! I love this book, i just finished reading it yesterday!!

    Any more books by Eloise?

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  4. It looks like she wrote at least 16 other books. I haven't read any of them, but there are two called The Golden Goblet and Pharaoh that are also set in Egypt. I may have to give them a go, just for that reason.

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  5. i have read the Golden Goblet and I liked this book a bit better Golden Goblet is still good and I actually liked the romance between Sheftu and Mara also this book can make an awesome movie

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