Tag Archives: Egypt

The Capsarius by Simon Turney

Head of Zeus | 2022 (14 April) | 432p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book

It 25 BC and Egypt is not what it once was. Pharaoh-less, it is ruled by Romans, hungry for its wealth and resources. The Queen of the Kush, far to the South, also has her eye on it and that means trouble. The 22nd legion is sent up the Nile to deal with the Queen’s army and raiders and among it is Titus Cervianus, an army medic and scientist who has the distinction of being both extremely talented at mending people while being incredibly unpopular and picked upon. It doesn’t help that he finds himself friends with one of the legion’s troublemakers, Ulyxes. As they travel deeper into Egypt, there is danger everywhere, from within the legion, from terrifying enemy fighters, and from the Nile itself, which thrashes with crocodiles.

I love a Roman military adventure and have read many of them over the years. The Capsarius is such a fine example for lots of reasons, not least its author, Simon Turney. What he doesn’t know about the Roman world and its military engine isn’t worth knowing. The amount of research he does for each of his books (fiction and non-fiction) is extraordinary and all of that means that you can enjoy his novels while also feeling that you’re learning something.

The setting of The Capsarius is fantastic and it is effectively a military tour up the Nile at a time with the wonders of ancient Egypt are fading but are still marvelled at and have a power to awe. Temples are described in beautiful detail that captures the enigma of Egyptian religion and architecture. I’ve visited many of these places myself on a leisurely cruise up the Nile and the novel brought back memories of the colour and heat of middle and southern Egypt.

But this is a dangerous place for Cervianus, not least because his fellow soldiers keep wanting to kill him while the officers in charge make reckless decisions about their mission. Cervianus seems to reel from one disaster to the next, while all of the time the legion is plagued by attack, the hostile environment, the heat, and then there are the crocodiles. I’m rather glad there were none of those on my cruise. Unfortunately, the crocodiles seem to like nothing better than the taste of a sweaty Roman soldier.

Cervianus’ medical knowledge is called upon with alarming regularity and the detail of his progressive methods is both fascinating and, I have to say, gory. But there is something really appealing about Cervianus. He is an entertaining and true companion, loyal, very unlucky and clever. Despite being widely unliked, he does find friends in strange places, including among the native Egyptian auxiliaries, who are fascinating in their own right.

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of an unusual man and his exploits on the trail of the Kush queen’s army. The descriptions of the Nile and the legacy of its pharaonic past are wonderful as the army moves further and further away from Alexandria ad the familiar. Simon Turney knows his stuff and the fascinating detail and insight makes this novel stand out. If you love Romans and the ancient world, you’ll love this.

Other reviews (also writes as S.J.A. Turney)
Marius’ Mules I: The Invasion of Gaul
Marius’ Mules II: The Belgae
Writing historical locations – a guest post
With Gordon Doherty – Sons of Rome

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

Avon | 2021 (30 September) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Collector's Daughter by Gll PaulEvelyn’s long life has been extraordinary. The daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she grew up at Highclere Castle, but, just like her father, Lady Evelyn Herbert had no interest in high society. Her dream was to travel and be an archaeologist, a dream that came true when Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun while working for Lord Carnarvon. Evelyn was the first person to crawl inside the tomb. It was the defining moment of her life, the greatest moment. But it was followed by a series of tragedies that would shape the rest of Evelyn’s life, despite her long and happy marriage to Brograve Beauchamp. And now, over fifty years later, Egyptian academic Ana Mansour is determined to discover what really happened all those years ago in the tomb and what it is exactly that Evelyn has determined to forget.

I am a huge fan of Gill Paul’s novels. I adore them. She manages to focus on women at the heart of events that are irresistible to me and now, with The Collector’s Daughter, she’s done it again. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 is so utterly fascinating, glamorous, dangerous – I could not wait to read it! Eve Beauchamp is a wonderful character, in the scenes where she’s young and in those chapters where she’s old and ill. This is the story of her life and the people she filled it with, both living and dead, and they are all so vividly portrayed along with the world in which they lived.

There is a darkness to the novel. We are aware of the curse and Eve was closer to it than most and the character of Ana Masour haunts the pages. She haunts Eve. It’s as if she’s there every way Evelyn turns. The past is not escapable. It doesn’t die. It just decays like Tutankhamun in his desert tomb. The atmosphere is constant and heavy. You can feel the heat of Egypt, the mustiness of the tomb, the light of Highclere Castle, the love in Evelyn’s heart.

The Collector’s Daughter is completely engrossing. As always, Gill Paul combines absolutely fascinating historic events with the most interesting and fully realised people, adding an air of mystery, a hint of something menacing, a curse, as well as the joy of living.

Other reviews and features
Guest post: Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
The Secret Wife
Another Woman’s Husband

Guest post: ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband’

The Lost Daughter
The Second Marriage

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna Raybourn

Titan Books | 2018 (9 January) | 335p | Review copy | Buy the book

A Treacherous Curse by Deanna RaybournIt is 1888 and Egyptology has rarely been more popular. But where there’s a mummy there’s usually a curse and the latest person to fall foul of one is John de Morgan who has disappeared off the face of the earth, shortly after helping to discover the tomb of ancient Egyptian princess. Unfortunately, her priceless diadem disappeared at the same time and society isn’t being slow to put two and two together. This is not a mystery that adventuress Veronica Speedwell can ignore because de Morgan used to be the expedition partner of her close colleague, the curiously enigmatic Stoker. There is scandal in Stoker’s past and de Morgan was at its heart. It’s perhaps not surprising that Stoker might be suspected of foul play. And then there are the rumours – the figure of Anubis, that most frightening of Egyptian gods, has been spotted stalking the streets of London.

A Treacherous Curse is the third novel in Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell series but it’s the first I’ve read. This is a matter shortly to be resolved because I now have the first two books to enjoy – A Curious Beginning and A Perilous Undertaking. Not having read the earlier two books didn’t affect my pleasure in A Treacherous Curse in the least but it certainly made me keen to find out what had gone on before between Veronica and Stoker. This is a couple I want to know much more about and I had so much fun reading this book.

A Treacherous Curse is a fantastic mix of giving me what I was expecting – a comforting, fun Victorian Egyptian adventure with a well-heeled heroine who gets herself into all sorts of scrapes while having multiple misunderstandings with men – with the unexpected. Veronica Speedwell challenges all of our preconceptions as much as she does those of the male dominated society of her day. She might have enormously dodgy aristocratic origins (I loved this element of her story so much – I need to much more about this!), but she is fiercely independent, foul-mouthed when the situation calls for it, and nobody knows how on earth to handle her. Except with caution. She is clever and wise and absolutely hysterical. Some of the things she says… Was she really marooned on a raft in the middle of an ocean? How I love Veronica Speedwell.

Stoker is described beautifully and is presented as the archetypal Victorian heartthrob explorer. He’s aristocrat but he has a touch of the exotic about him, enough to draw eyes to him, in a slightly disapproving yet interested manner, in stuffy drawing rooms and parlours.

The mystery is great! I slightly regretted that Veronica and Stoker didn’t actually have to go to Egypt themselves, but the mystery of Egypt is present throughout in the most unlikely of places as an exhibition of the artefacts found within the princess’s tombs gets underway. There is a host of possible suspects and they are brought to life with such colour. I loved all of the scandal – the affairs, the illegitimate offspring, the neglected wives, the unruly children, the intrigue. And I also lapped up the descriptions of Victorian London and its houses and the curious collectors who live within them.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Treacherous Curse. It is such a funny book. The humour doesn’t get in the way of the mystery but it certainly adds a spark to proceedings and helped me to fall deeply for Veronica and Stoker. Just the idea of Stoker scraping out the insides of a stuffed rhinoceros…. I am now a committed fan of this excellent series and will be making a point of seeking out their next adventure while catching up with their previous escapades.

Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Cleopatra’s Shadows | Emily Holleman | 2015, Pb 2016 | Sphere | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cleopatra's Shadows by Emily HollemanBerenice has seized the crown of Egypt – her half-sister Cleopatra sails for safety with their father, leaving the youngest sister Arsinoe behind. Arsinoe is just a child, near defenceless, with nothing but her wits and strength of personality to protect her from a vengeful, ambitious sister whose interests would be best served by Arsinoe’s death. Arsinoe has few friends – a tutor, a nurse, a fellow pupil – but the child can trust no-one. Instead, Arsinoe must rely on the Alexandrian palaces’s secret corners, its hidden corridors, spending as much time as she can playing in its beautiful gardens, away from anyone who might recognise her.

But Berenice is as alone as Arsinoe. She is Queen, a goddess, but holding on to that power is an endless struggle – she can rely on nobody, especially not a husband. Just like her sister, Berenice is surrounded by eunuchs and servants but Berenice must also listen to politicians, generals, aristocrats, each pouring advice, secrets and desires into her ears. All the time, she must keep one eye and ear open for the news from Rome, where her father and half-sister Cleopatra plot with the Mediterranean’s new masters.

Alternating between the sisters, moving between chapters headed ‘Younger’ and ‘Elder’, Emily Holleman carries us back over two thousand years to ancient Egypt, a land as dangerous as it is exotic. While our sympathies are easily engaged by the child Arsinoe, who is a delight to spend time with, the author works harder than this. As time goes by, we become as invested in Berenice’s story. Powerful women were few and far between at this time in history and, in Egypt, it’s hard enough for a royal to survive, let alone rule as Queen. Berenice uses every wit and guile at her disposal but ultimately she is at the mercy of men, at home and abroad. Her determination and effort are extraordinary and, despite the charm and courage of Arsinoe, it’s Berenice who stole my heart in Cleopatra’s Shadows.

The most famous of Egypt’s Queens is tantalisingly absent. Cleopatra appears just briefly. I did wonder if this would matter but it didn’t at all. This is a fully-imagined, three-dimensional world. I absolutely adored Cleopatra’s Shadows. It is a beautifully-written novel. I couldn’t have asked for more from it. Arsinoe and Berenice are wonderful characters, each with a distinct voice and a compelling story of their own. The novel contains both intrigue and adventure (lots of adventure, Arsinoe attracts it like a magnet). It presents an exotic world but also reminds us of Rome standing waiting on its shores. But it’s also a very personal story – it’s impossible to imagine a family more dysfunctional than the Ptolemys, nor an ancient family I’d want to read about more. The cruelty that both sisters have endured, the loss of mothers, the malice of stepmothers, the disdain of fathers, the treachery of servants. The sisters have been forced into an animosity they didn’t choose. This might be ancient history but its story is timelessly gripping.

Cleopatra’s shadows is the first in a series and this makes me very happy indeed. It ends at a point that cries out to be continued even though it is clear that this first phase of the story is complete. I cannot praise this fine novel enough. With no doubt at all, it is one of my top reads of 2015.

Pyramid by David Gibbins

Publisher: Headline
Pages: 448
Year: 2014, Pb 2015
Buy: Hardback, Kindle, Paperback
Source: Review copy

Pyramid by David GibbinsReview
Pyramid is the sequel to Pharaoh and so do be warned there is a little about Pharaoh in the review below. Pyramid would do well as a standalone novel but I would certainly recommend that you enjoy Pharaoh first.

Marine archaeologist and adventurer Jack Howard, together with his friend and diving partner Costas, makes an extraordinary discovery in the depths of the Red Sea – a find that puts under the brightest spotlight one of the key events of the Old Testament. But this is not a good time to be in Egypt. Religious extremists are on the verge of taking over the country, throwing it back into another Dark Ages, taking its people and archaeological treasures to the brink of suppression, death and extermination. It was these dangerous conditions that caused Jack and Costas to flee Egypt in the previous novel, Pharaoh, but their discoveries then were more than enough to bring them back and now, in the Red Sea and in the sands below the pyramids of Giza, there are wonders even more spectacular waiting to be found. That’s if Jack and Costas survive, of course, and the chances of that lessen with every passing hour.

Pharaoh was easily one of my top reads of 2013 – a stunning combination of archaeological puzzle and historical adventure, spending much of its pages exploring the Nile through the eyes of sharpshooter Mayne, a British soldier who, back in the 1880s, was given the perilous mission of rescuing General Gordon from the Mahdi, the religious zealot of his day. Relatively little of the book was spent in the present day with Jack and Costas. In Pyramid, though, the emphasis is very much on the here and now as Jack and Costas uncover the clues that they hope will lead them to the source of a great mystery from ancient Egypt’s past – a mystery that would have enormous significance for the Middle East and for the entire world. The time of Gordon and Mayne isn’t forgotten, though. Several of the clues date from this time, in particular a soldier who disappeared into ancient forgotten tunnels, only to emerge months later completely traumatised and with a story to tell.

Pyramid is a fast moving archaeological adventure although as with David Gibbins’ other novels and especially Pharaoh, I would hesitate to use the word ‘thriller’ to describe them. There are none of the baddies you’d expect in a conventional mystery thriller. Instead the excitement and danger here come from the dives themselves, from the unknown and from the very real and imminent threat of political and military coup. This is all the more frightening in Pyramid because it is so topical. Few readers can be under any illusion about the significance of this threat and as archaeologists scramble to leave the country, trying to take whoever they can with them, the novel moves into a very dark and disturbing place. Part of the story also takes place in Israel. There is an overwhelming sense that history is being made at the same time that it is being discovered.

The archaeological mystery is a good one and the dives are exciting and extremely well described. David Gibbins is an expert and his knowledge shines through, both with the diving scenes and with the history. This meticulousness, in tandem with the absolute charm and appeal of the characters of Jack and Costas, is, I think, one of the main reasons why I enjoy all of these novels so much. Time is taken to get facts straight. If there is one drawback it’s the many times in which Jack and other experts start describing in enormous detail historical events, people, artefacts, places and so on, putting much of the context in characters’ mouths. This can take some getting used to, particularly when such exposition takes place at times of great peril – hardly the best of times for a lecture. Nevertheless, this has never spoiled my pleasure in these novels. It’s difficult to take offence at Jack Howard.

More difficult to overcome in Pyramid are the instances of coincidence or convenience. So much is tied together, everything is linked. But this is an archaeological adventure. Allowances must be made for drama. Arguably, it only stands out because of the authority of David Gibbins as archaeologist and author, making it seem the more surprising. But it’s this expertise, enthusiasm and extraordinary detail and care that helps to make these novels distinct from other mystery thrillers – David Gibbins writes about a world that fascinates him, that he knows a lot about, and he pulls me into it.

I thoroughly enjoyed the parallel late 19th-century story in Pharaoh, so much so that I missed it in Pyramid, but Pyramid is a fine archaeological mystery by one of my very favourite authors. I love the Jack Howard adventures – long may they continue.

Other reviews
The Gods of Atlantis
Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage