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Tutankhamun: The Book of Shadows

by Nick Drake

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Tutankhamun by Nick Drake
© HarperCollins
Harper Collins, July 2010

Two events made 1922 a year of wonders. Ulysses was published in February and later made literary history, and, on November 26 of that year, Howard Carter, a down at the heels, nearly abandoned and discredited archeologist, cleared a hole in a newly-discovered tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Looking in and aided by the flickering light of a single candle, he saw gold everywhere, "everywhere the glint of gold." When Lord Carnarvon, his benefactor asked if he could see anything, Carter replied, "Yes. Wonderful things." The final resting place of Tutankhamun, the boy king, had been viewed for the first time in over 3,000 years!

Nick Drake's second book in his Egyptian trilogy bears the standard high. Everywhere there is gold. It is a novel replete with wonderful things. Nowhere have I found the life of Tutankhamun brought to life so vividly, so convincingly accurate. Nefertiti, the first in the trilogy, has risen to the top of my to-read list, based on the quality of this novel.
Being convincingly accurate is a difficult task for two reasons. Scholars actually know relatively little about Tut compared to other Pharaohs. He was a child when he came to the throne and his reign was very brief, having died before his twentieth birthday. Plus, his name was effaced from nearly every monument by his two successors, Ay and Horemheb. The second problem, an apparent contradiction to the first statement, is that we know so much about him, or think we do. He has become almost a part of our cultural awareness.

When Carter got his first look in 1922, National Geographic magazine actually had a writer on-site who went into the tomb after Carter. His article was published in the May 1923 issue. "It is unlikely that the comparatively small tomb (of Tutankhamun) will have more than a passing interest." Maynard Williams went on to say that its contents would "surely contain such wonders from the distant past as have never been seen by modern man." He was certainly right about that last part, and that contributed to a keen awareness of who Tut was. Books (even the estimable James Patterson has written a "nonfiction thriller"), magazine articles, television characters (King Tut in "Batman and Robin"), and comedy routines (Steve Martin!) have kept his legend alive. Turning the corner in the Washington exhibit many years ago and seeing his solid gold death mask lit by a single spotlight remains seared into my memory.
In the course of this beautifully conceived, multi-faceted story, Drake touches on the one great controversy that continues to envelop Tut. That is, how/why did he die? Many argue that he was murdered by Ay; others that he succumbed to disease, perhaps malaria; still others that he died from an infection resulting from a broken leg. We'll never know for sure, but Drake constructs such a real world with living, breathing characters that his solution is eminently feasible and has convinced this reviewer.

The primary characters are carefully drawn and whole in their development. The child Tutankhamen, a name he later changed to honor the god he worshipped, married his half sister, Ankhesenamun, the daughter of Nefertiti. In Drake's imagining Tut conceives a plan to consolidate his power, but he must contend with someone within the palace walls who leaves frightening "gifts" for him. Outside the walls a serial killer is on the loose and that brings the true central character to the fore. Rai Rahotep is a detective charged by Tut himself to be his bodyguard and to solve the twin mysteries. Rahotep is as memorable and fully developed as Marcus Didius Falco, the detective in Lindsey Davis's novels about Imperial Rome. Rahotep is the continuing character who bridges the first two book in the trilogy and, one hopes, will continue into the third.
Nick Drake is a British literary force. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and movie producer (The Girl With the Pearl Earring). Nefertiti, the first novel in the Egyptian series, was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. Now at work on the final novel in the trilogy, he has published two award-winning collections of poetry.

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