Michelle Moran's sophomore novel sweeps the reader back to Pharaonic Egypt in the Nineteenth Dynasty; her debut work, Nefertiti chronicled the lives of the royals through the eyes of Queen Nefertiti's embattled sister, Mutnodjmet. Nefertari is Mutnodjmet's daughter and by her blood ties to the Amarna royal family, she's barely tolerated in the Malkata court of Pharaoh Seti. Raised by her nurse, Merit, after the tragic death of her mother, Nefertari is constantly aware of the stain on her family's history, where no in Egypt speaks their names. Among few sources of comfort are her childhood friendships with Asha, a general's son and Prince Ramesses, the king's son who is destined to inherit his father's power. But Ramesses' future appears to lay with another, the beautiful but secretive lady Iset, who immediately targets Nefertari in her bid to hold her husband's heart.
Nefertari's future is more uncertain than ever. If Iset becomes Ramesses' chief queen, she could influence him to forget his childhood friendship with Nefertari, who would have no hope of his love or for restoring her family's name. In despair, Nefertari accepts the kind gestures of Woserit, the king's sister and chief priestess of Hathor. Woserit undertakes Nefertari's education and her further upbringing in the Temple of Hathor. But Woserit's sister, Henuttawy, the chief priestess of Isis has her own interests in seeing Iset proclaimed chief queen one day. She's a dangerous rival, coupled with the courtier and High Priest of Amun, Rahotep, who once served the royals at the Amarna court and worshipped their god Aten with the same devotion he shows to Amun.
When Nefertari returns to the Malkata court after a year in the Temple of Hathor, Ramesses is enthralled by her. Despite their mutual feelings, everyone cautions the young prince not to marry Nefertari, but the marriage takes place. On her wedding day, Nefertari's triumph turns bitter as the Egyptian people take the streets not to celebrate but to mock her as a heretic. The threat of famine rages through the country, and through an ingenious solution Ramesses assures the future of his people, with Nefertiti at his side. However, when Iset delivers of their husband's first child, and when the child dies suddenly, Nefertari's rival accuses her of murdering an innocent baby. Ramesses' growing affection for Nefertari increases Iset's paranoia and she's aware of how public opinion regards her as the least intelligent of Ramesses' wives, as petitioners seek out Nefertari for her gift with languages. Among these petitioners is an enigmatic man named Ahmoses, a leader among the Habiru with ties to the Amarna period. His request threatens to fracture the country.
Worse, there are external forces threatening Egypt's borders. Nefertari and Ramesses leave their newborn twin sons to face the Sherden pirates. In the midst of their triumph, tragedy strikes when Pharaoh Seti dies. Nefertari learns dangerous secrets about her rivals Iset and Henuttaway and about the death of a queen, that test Nefertari's devotion to her husband, her efforts to secure her family's legacy and her future as chief queen.
For those who are passionate about Ancient Egypt and history, The Heretic Queen is as delightful a read as its predecessor, Nefertiti. The goal of the historical fiction writer is to shed light on the past, answering the how and why of history. To do so, Ms. Moran amassed a wealth of information about the period, and draws her reader into their world with a cast of intriguing characters. The rivalry of Henuttaway and Woserit has consequences that extend beyond their personal ambitions and the lives of Ramesses and Nefertari. Ms. Moran also captures the essence of the couple's devotion to each other in such a beautiful way, that it seems they were made for each other. With a satisfactory conclusion, this novel is sure to please and I highly recommend The Heretic Queen .
*** We'll feature more of The Heretic Queen and the author Michelle Moran throughout the week, including a Q&A with Michelle and an excerpt of her latest release. You'll also have the chance to win copies of The Heretic Queen and Nefertiti. ***