As usual there will be spoilers.
Basically it follows the Eunuch slave Taita who is wholeheartedly devoted to his mistress Lostris and friend Tanus, together they share a wonderful vision of Egypt and despite all their troubles and hardships they begin to achieve it.
In all honesty I had my reservations, like I said before the first part of it is quite difficult to get through but once I got through it I was swept up on their journey, almost as if I was caught up in the Nile with them. It’s a remarkable book, so much happens that by the time you get to the end you’ve forgotten what happened at the beginning. It’s a book I’m glad that I’ve read, I was too young the first time round, I didn’t appreciate it then, but I sure as hell do now. This story is going to stay with me.
It starts with the Festival of Osiris and our trio of heroes are aboard the Breath of Horus, Tanus as its captain, Lostris as a guest and Taita as her faithful friend and slave. They are out hunting hippopotamus because the course of the festival is the only time people, who aren’t priests, can eat the meat. It’s very slow and the plot plods on as Tanus and Lostris pledge their love to one another on the temple of Hapi.
A lot of Egyptian customs are explained and it swiftly becomes evident that Taita despises his master, Lord Intef (it was he who ordered his castration and he often abused Taita when he was displeased). It was also quick to point out just how amazing Taita was. Now don’t get me wrong, he’s not Bella Swan, he has his flaws, quite a few in fact, but he also happens to be astonishingly talented. He can paint, he can sing, he’s an architect, an inventor, a great tactician, an impressive athlete, a surgeon, an astrologer and has the mystical ability of being able to traverse the mazes of Ammon Ra (so he can see the future), he can read, he can write, has the uncanny ability of being able to learn languages quickly, an accomplished horse rider and he’s good at maths. Which I find hard to believe, maths is way too difficult.
I don’t say this to insult him I actually bring it up as a testament to Wilbur Smith, usually when there’s a character like that it’s very hard to believe, but you just do here. However, saying that I can understand why people might not like him, he seems too perfect and conveniently talented, but I couldn’t help but gradually fall in love with him.
He does have his flaws. When he gets angry he’s angry, he almost gave up a chance for escape because his rage led him to kill Lord Intef, he was so blinded by the anger and the injustice of what had been done to him that he endangered his mistress, Tanus and their son Memnon. He’s also naive. Of course, back then no one really knew what the brain was for. They thought that emotion and logic stemmed from the heart and Taita poked fun at a philosopher (which Taita also happens to be) that claimed the brain was the centre of logic and emotion instead of the heart. There was also a point, when he came across a horse for the first time that he thought it fed on human flesh. He’s not infallible.
But for all his accomplishments his most impressive is the love for his mistress. He protected her through everything, he taught her all she knew, he went with her when she married the Pharoah, he convinced the king that Memnon was his heir and when the Pharoah later died he managed to convince her people that the two children she had afterwards were sired by the ghost of Pharoah. He helped her with the oaths she had sworn and held her gently in his arms as she died.
He loved her as much as Tanus did and I think it’s his devotion to her that made this story what it is. It’s not a book about romance, it’s a book about relationships and when he lost her I actually cried. Even now, writing about it, my throat aches, my head throbs and my eyes are tearing up. I don’t cry often, I think only a few books have managed it; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the bit when Harry just stumbles towards his mum in the forest gets me every time), Firesong (which is the last book in the Wind on Fire Trilogy) it’s just because it’s bittersweet, Inheritance, and now this.
Lostris herself was hard to get on with straight away. She at first seemed like a love-struck teenager (which in fairness she was) and a bit silly, but first impressions can be deceiving. She’s clever and handles the regency of the double crown once her husband died excellently. While she has an affair with Tanus (the man she truly loved) she otherwise conducted herself as the compassionate queen she was. She gave food to the poor, donated money to the temples and built buildings to look after the unfortunate. She also loved Taita it was a beautiful relationship, it was not one-sided, she was dependant on him and cared for him deeply and he lived for her.
Then there’s Tanus, I don’t have much to say about him, he was a good and honourable character and his death was tragic, he died so far from home and far from the woman he loved. He was a great warrior. All three of these characters were instrumental in the survival of their people.
But now we get down to the story itself, while it would be absolutely nothing without the characters there are a lot of other elements that made it great. The research was thorough, Smith spares no detail, he tells you about the embalming ritual, he tells you about the different cultures, the struggles between upper and lower Egypt as well as the military tactics used. He tells you about the gods and some of the mythology and the inventions that make an appearance throughout and he tells you about the making of the tombs.
There is some subtle humour scattered about, I like to think the musings about the brain (which I mentioned earlier) was a nice bit of irony. It could have been really easy to make Taita realise the truth of it but Smith resists the temptation.
There’s a slight discrepancy, at the beginning of the book Taita stated that both he and Lostris think of Hapi (an androgynous god) as female while most others think of it as a he but later on Taita refers to it as the latter (kinda nitpicking here I guess).
I was so caught up with the characters that when they saw horses for the first time I felt like it was the first time I was seeing them too, despite sometimes feeding apples to a couple on the way back from Asda where I used to live. Smith also has the impressive talent of being able to juxtapose death with nature, it makes the battle scenes all the more poignant. He also employs foreshadowing, perhaps overzealously. Sometimes tragedy has more of an impact when it’s a surprise and it was ruined a little because of the hints beforehand, however with Lostris I think the way he eased the reader into it made it more horrific. I didn’t want it to happen but knew that it would, I felt like he was trying to bring me closer to Taita in that moment of grief.
This is a beautiful story, exceptionally Egyptian and incredibly historic and do you know what’s even more amazing?
If the author’s note at the end is anything to go by Taita was real. He was a real slave living during this time in history. Although I don’t know how much was embellished about him. The author’s note is strategically placed at the end of the story because it adds something to it. I think if it had been at the beginning it might not have been as impressive, but reading through the story and then being told he was real, well it’s just brilliant.
I’d suggest this to any one who is literate…and if you’re illiterate (which is questionable if you’re reading this) I highly suggest you go and learn to read just so you can give this book a go.
I’m sorry for such a long post, I thought it was going to be difficult to write about it but it seems just can’t stop. If you’ve read the book what did you think of it?
PS. J.K Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, comes out September 27th, guess who’s been jumping around like an excited school kid and making plans for the possible book tour and midnight opening!