I'll admit I was a bit apprehensive when I began reading. After all, both novels are narrated in the first person by teenaged Egyptian princesses--how different could they be? Quite, it would seem. Mutny, the narrator of Nefertiti, is an observer. Sister to the queen, she is always guessing at Nefertiti's motivations and true allegiances. Nefertari, on the other hand, is a doer. She is not observing the actions of a queen, but reigning as one. Nefertari is a strong, determined character who, after some initial hesitations and lapses in confidence, decides what she wants--to rule with Ramesses as Chief Wife--and does everything she can to obtain her goal, endangering her own safety and security to win back the love and trust of the Egyptian people. Although the reader knows Nefertari will ultimately succeed--why write a book about a protagonist who fails in her quest?--Moran keeps the reader's interest by setting obstacle after obstacle in Nefertari's path. As the machinations devised by those who desire to prevent Nefertari from becoming Chief Wife become increasingly malicious, the reader eagerly turns the pages, wondering what Nefertari will do next and whether it will be enough. The suspense, as well as the growth in Nefertari's character, carry the reader through to the novel's very satisfying climax.
The Egyptian setting does not wear thin in the second book, as the Egyptian court travels between Thebes and Avaris and Moran takes the reader into schoolrooms, temples, audience chambers and military encampments. She depicts a wide swath of Egyptian society: viziers and courtiers, ambassadors and priestesses, generals and architects, nursemaids and dancers and slaves. Instead of lecturing the reader about Egyptian culture and religion, Moran deftly allows elements of both to shape the character's outlooks and actions: for example, the knowledge that any record of her family's deeds has been erased from temple murals and therefore lost to posterity as well overlooked by the gods eats at Nefertari and motivates her to clear her family's name. Moran does a wonderful job of weaving her knowledge of ancient Egypt into the details of the story without ever sounding didactic or heavy-handed. Her historical fiction reads with the flair of contemporary fiction yet never stumbles into anachronism.
The relationships between all of the characters are believable, consistent, and nuanced. Nefertari has a touching relationship with her nurse, Merit, who has raised her since her parents' deaths; the animosity between Ramesses's two aunts, Woserit and Henuttawy, which has far-reaching consequences, is convincingly established and maintained. I was a bit disappointed that Nefertari doesn't have more of a struggle in falling in love with Ramesses. I thought that Asha, the third member of their childhood trio who seems to be in love with her, will complicate things, but he readily steps aside and winds up with a secondary character in the end. Nefertari, to her credit, truly loves Ramesses and not just his power; this keeps her sympathetic during her rivalry with his other wife, Iset. Moran's story is about the individuals, not just the history, and her grasp of their psychology makes them vivid and dynamic.
No sophomore slump here: Michelle Moran has written a fascinating and engaging book that merits praise for the fineness of its historical detail as well as the quality of the writing. While the reader must wonder whether Nefertari will escape the shadow of her notorious aunt, there is no question that The Heretic Queen will equal or surpass the fame of its predecessor, Nefertiti.