Author: Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Review number: 51
Genre: Young Adult – Historical Fiction
Stand Alone/Series: Stand Alone
Summary: The adventures of an ingenious Egyptian slave girl who undertakes a dangerous assignment as a spy in the royal palace of Thebes, in the days when Queen Hatshepsut ruled.
Mara, Daughter of the Nile is one of Thea’s favorite books of all time and one she has been trying to get me to read for a long time. I finally decided to read it and now I understand entirely her undying appreciation for the book. It is absolutely fantastic and I recommend it to everyone.
Mara is a 17 year old Egyptian slave. Sold too many times to remember anything about her parents or her home, educated in both Egyptian and Babylonian by a former master, she is now slave to a cruel one, who keeps her in a tight-leash and hungry. But Mara is nothing if a cunning, rebellious young woman and one day bored and feeling the hunger for both food and a taste of freedom she decides to sneak out of the house into the market for a few hours, consequences be damned. Using all of her guile she manages to “stumble” into a baker carrying his load of bread and steals a couple of cakes under the young man’s eyes. Unbeknownst to her, she was being watched by two men who by coincidence – or Destiny – were at the market at the very same time and both watch as her master finds her and takes her away to be beaten. And hence, Mara’s fate is changed forever.
Egypt is at the moment in time, where Hatshepsut, the first Queen Pharaoh has usurped the throne from her half-brother Thutmose , whom she keeps as a high-class prisoner in court. Hatshepsut is seen as a vain queen more interested in emptying the coffers in projects to further engorge her own vanity instead of taking care of her people and her lands. There are talks of rebellion all over Egypt supposedly to start soon with an unknown powerful leader working for Thutmose. Spies for both sides are all over the Court and Mara is thrown in the middle of this complicated situation.
One of the men who had watched her in the marketplace intercepts Mara and her master, and before Mara can be punished, she is bought by him, an agent of Hatshepsut. Her ease with her two languages saves the day and she is told to find a boat to take her to Thebes where she is to take the position of Interpreter at the Court between Thutmose and his bride to be, a Canaanite princess, Inanni. Her mission is to spy for Hatshepsut and to try and find out how messages from the rebels are getting in and out of Thutmose’s rooms. Her mission is dangerous but if she succeeds, she will be granted her freedom.
But in another twist of fate, in the very same boat that is taking her to Court, she meets the leader of the Rebellion, the fierce, powerful (and handsome) Lord Sheftu , who was that second man who observed her at the market place. They start a friendship (or is it?) which ends with Sheftu blackmailing her –he thinks she is a runaway slave – into working for HIM as a spy in the very same position of interpreter. But her mission is to pass along those very same messages she is supposed to intercept.
Mara is no fool and with all of her boldness and craftiness decides to play for both sides whilst at the same time, enjoying the freedom that her new position grants her.
If at first Mara, is more than happy to play her part and to enjoy the commodities of being treated as a higher ranking server rather than a slave, soon enough reality bites and she comes to realize that these are dangerous times and that she is playing a dangerous game. She starts out with a carefree attitude for her perilous mission but soon unwanted feelings for both Sheftu and for Egypt itself start to crawl its ways into Mara’s heart – and a decision needs to be made. And what would happen if ever one of her maters discovers the double game she is playing?
And this is only the start – the book is amazing. It not only has a most endearing heroine -crafty, intelligent, passionate, COMPETENT – but also a fantastic, heroic, male protagonist in Sheftu. Their relationship is one full of tension: are they purely master and slave? Friends or Foes? The sexual tension leaps from the page (which surprised me quite a lot given that this is shelved as a children’s book!) from the start but there is so much more to it – I can’t go there, part of the delight in reading the book is in following the evolution of their relationship.
And so the story alternates its point of view between Mara and Sheftu but also some of the well-drawn and compelling secondary characters – like poor unwanted Princess Inanni and Nekohnkh, the owner of the boat where Mara and Sheftu first met and who becomes sort of a father figure to Mara.
As a lover of all things Egyptian, I was thrilled at the way ancient Egypt was brought to life by the author and how vivid her descriptions of every-day life both in the streets and in the Courts were. I have to say that at first, it broke my heart to see the Great Hatshepsut turned into a hideous villain but once I got pass that, I enjoyed the story so very much.
And, from the middle of the book things escalate in such a fashion with both Mara and Sheftu’s lives in danger and with nail biting, heart pounding non-stop action which gather momentum towards a most powerful climax.
This book has everything I could hope for: the vividness of the historical setting, the amazing pair of protagonists, believable and well developed plot and a fantastic love story to boot.
Run, don’t walk, to buy this book.
Notable quotes/Parts: My favorite parts? The second half of the book as a whole. To say more is to spoil the development of the plot itself and believe me when I say you don’t want to miss that. So I will quote a Sheftu (oh, Sheftu) line, that comes from his almost broken heart after he sees Mara being almost beaten to death in front of his eyes by a Libyan agent of Hatshepsut:
– “Mara! Oh, Amon, no hand but mine shall slay that misbegotten Libyan! “
Sheftu scooped her up, cursing incoherently, carried her to the far side of the room…
Additional Thoughts: I spent my entire childhood dreaming about going to Egypt and finally in 2007, we finally managed to go backpacking all over the country for two weeks. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times but I will never forget visiting the places I always wanted to go. A couple of pictures:
Me, reading (always reading) – Karnak Temple, the great Hypostyle Hall.
The mortuary complex of Hatshepsut, Deir el- Bahri.
Verdict: Fantastic, highly recommended. The book was first published in 1953 but it’s still being printed. Amazon has it at $6.99.
Rating: 10! Perfection.
Reading next: Undead and Unreturnable by MaryJanice Davidson.