Out Of The Black Land – Feature Book

By Kerry Greenwood
Clan Destine Press

I’m a sucker for an historical novel. Admittedly most of the historical novels I’ve read have been set between the Middle Ages and the early 20th Century, but Out of the Black Land has given me a whole new appreciation for ancient history.

Set in18th Dynasty Egypt, Out of the Black Land follows the reign of the infamous Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, told through the eyes of the Great Royal Scribe Ptah-hotep and Nefertiti’s sister, Mutnodjme.

It explores sweeping political and religious themes while giving an insight into the daily practices and lives of those living in the royal court.

Akhenaten is a controversial figure in Egyptian history, seen by some as a visionary beyond his times and others as a dangerous lunatic. He is most well-known for his attempt at a religious revolution in which he tried to convert his people from the polytheistic beliefs they had followed for centuries, to a monotheistic worship of the one god – Aten (the sun).

While his body has never been conclusively identified, depictions of the pharaoh Akhenaten often show him as having a strange elongated head, feminine waist and rounded belly. Whether those depictions are a realistic interpretation or an artistic impression is still up for debate.

All kinds of theories abound when it comes to Egyptology, possibly making this one of the most frustrating and liberating eras for a historical novelist. Even Egyptologists argue amongst themselves over dates, meanings and interpretations so in effect, a novelist has more freedom to adjust or create certain character aspects of an ancient Egyptian than they do with an historical figure such as Queen Elizabeth for example.

Greenwood has made some interesting choices with her characters and there is plenty of same-sex action. The Great Royal Scribe, Ptah-hotep’s soul-mate and lover is a fellow scribe, Kheperren while Mutnodjme often ‘lies down’ with one of the royal wives, Merope. The Princess Sitamen is a warrior and fiercely independent woman accompanied by her entourage of female soldiers. Akhenaten however seems decidedly asexual in Greenwoods rendering, even though there has been much speculation regarding his sexuality.

The same-sex references are at once subtle and candid, as are the references to incest and pedophilia (yes, in ancient Egypt it was quite normal for a Pharaoh to marry his 10-year-old daughter). This makes the narrative ultimately more authentic as it seems not to be filtered by 21st century sensibilities and morals.

Greenwood’s storytelling prowess shines through in this book as it is fast paced and lucid. Not surprising as she’s had a great deal of practice over the years, writing over 50 books. She’s probably best known for her 18 Phryne Fisher mysteries set in 1920’s Melbourne but after reading Out of the Black Land I can’t wait to check out some of her other ‘ancient world’ tales. Clan Destine Press will be republishing her Delphic Women trilogy in 2011 which examines the Trojan Medea, Cassandra and Electra.

Amy Henderson