Books: Sun Queen by Emma L. Patterson

. . . Or Sun-Queen, if one goes by the dust cover. A minor distinction but still important: hyphen or no hyphen? The interior of the book (the copyright page, the title page) forsake the hyphen.

The copy of the book in my possession is hardbound, published by David McKay Company in 1967. It was a discard from the Oconee County Library in South Carolina, and if the stamping on the date card attached to the back flyleaf is to be believed, it was last due at the library on Feb 1 1984.

I find such little things very interesting, a form of biblio-archaeology.

The back of the dust jacket gives an account of Emma L. Patterson (online often referred to as Emma Lillie Patterson) that covers a scattered career as what would appear to be a privileged upbringing in New York, on to a life as a librarian, teacher, and sometime winner in writing contests. Her other books seem to focus on the American Revolution, so Sun Queen is a departure of sorts in that it is a novel about Nefertiti. Yes, that Nefertiti, the once queen of Egypt made famous by the sculpted bust discovered in 1912.

I don't know about Patterson's other work, but Sun Queen suffers in part from a lack of academic understanding of Akhenaten and, by association, Nefertiti herself. This is surely because we know more now than we did when Patterson was writing, though it also seems Patterson fudged and romanticized a few elements to suit her story. In her defense, many authors of historical fiction do the same, and Patterson admits in her [very short, far from detailed] notes, "While I do not guarantee that it happened this way, it could have."

Still, as a student of ancient and classical history, some of Patterson's freedoms bothered me more than such ones in other, similar books. She makes Bek the sculptor of the bust, which is typically attributed to Thutmose, in whose workshop it was found. Patterson works up a love triangle amongst Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Bek, but neglects any mention of Kiya, another of Akhenaten's wives. In fact, in Patterson's story Akhenaten has only one wife and queen. Though she is not explicit, it seems Akhenaten's belief in monotheism extends to a practice of monogamy. (And note that Patterson does portray Akhenaten as a monotheist, as opposed to a henotheist or monolatrist.) Kiya's existence as one of Akhenaten's wives became known in 1959, well in time for Patterson's book, but I suppose she had a different story to tell.

Besides the love story, the book is primarily concerned with Akhenaten's attempts to convert Egypt to his new religion. Akhenaten (she spells it Akhnaton) grows a bit repetitive and wearisome as the story drags on, and his inefficiency as a pharaoh is enough to make a person grind his teeth with frustration. Soon there is much intrigue as people line up to take over this feeble ruler's throne. Horemheb, who heads the army, has such designs, as does Nefertiti's own father Ay. In a better writer's hands, it is a compelling story, but Patterson's craft is somewhat clumsy. The dialogue is stiff; I think she means to convey a sort of royal tone but it all ends up sounding awkward. And the words she chooses for some things are not quite right, as in "pylons" for what I can only guess are obelisks or other monuments. Smenkhkare is called Sakere. Too, she never refers to Amarna by its Egyptian name, instead only calling the city "City of the Horizon of Aton." And again, her spellings of Amon and Aton and the related names are unusual, though not unheard of.

All lack of historical bedrock aside, the story moves quickly (chapters average eight pages) but ends unsatisfactorily with Horemheb advancing on Nefertiti and her remaining supporters in Amarna. The princesses of Egypt are evidently in Thebes (Waset), and at this point it is not clear who is actually running the country. Maybe this is because even today the succession after Akhenaten is hazy, much of the records destroyed by the Egyptians themselves in attempt to erase that period from their memories. Patterson does not give any suggestion as to what might happen past the point of the narrative, or what might have happened historically, which is interesting since she seemed fine with spinning any amount of fiction up to that point. What would be the harm in giving readers a real finish? Or at least in letting Bek and Nefertiti be happy together? (Did I just ruin it for you? Sorry. Though I can say this much: of all that Patterson writes in Sun Queen, the love between Bek and Nefertiti has the greatest impact. Patterson conveys their attraction well.)

It is not a bad book, for all its lack of accuracy and craft. It gives the overall feeling of someone who is a good writer but not great, someone in the middling part of their attempted literary mastery. Maybe Patterson did not feel so confident about the subject matter. Maybe her American Revolution books are better. But here, while passable, there is a caution and hesitancy to the prose that gives the reader a feeling of the author not quite putting her all into the work.

No comments: