Archives for category: Ancient Egypt

This week I’m recommending a gripping Historical Fantasy based on Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. “Black Ships” by American author, Jo Graham, was first published in 2008 and is still easy to find in paperback or ebook editions. This novel is the first in the `Numinous World’ series, which currently runs to six books, but it can be read as an entirely self-contained story following the life-history of a woman called Gull.

“Black Ships” is set around 1200 BCE. After the brutal conquest of the great city of Wilusa (Troy), many of its women were taken to Greece as slaves. Gull was born to one such slave in Pylos. She was crippled in an accident when she was only six years old, but Gull’s gift for seeing visions causes her to be adopted by the Pythia, the priestess of the Lady of the Dead. Gull’s first vision is of black ships and a burning city. As she is taught the mysteries of the goddess, Gull learns that the Greek lands are under a curse because of an unforgivable murder.

In time, Gull becomes the new Pythia but she fears that the goddess will never speak through her. One morning Gull notices nine black ships heading towards Pylos. Most of the men are away raiding so the city is almost defenceless. Gull is inspired to intervene and discovers that the attackers are men from Wilusa who have come “for the captives, for our wives and children taken in slavery”. The small fleet is all that is left of the people of Wilusa. Its reluctant leader is Prince Neas (Aeneas). He is the last of King Priam’s royal line and has the special favour of the Sea Goddess. Gull knows that she must go with Prince Neas to serve as his Sibyl but she only has glimpses of their journey’s end.

The search for a new home leads the exiled Wilusans to many different places at a time when all the countries around the eastern Mediterranean are in turmoil. Neas and his closest comrade, Captain Xandros, are both men who have suffered terrible losses but now they face fresh dangers and difficult decisions. The Wilusans endure storms, sea-battles and a relentless pursuit by the cruel son of Achilles. The wealthy and civilized kingdom of Egypt seems to offer a safe haven but at what price? Can Gull help Neas to become the great leader his people need and guide him to fulfil his destiny in Italy?

I decided to read this book after noticing that the dedication mentioned one of my favourite novels – Mary Renault’s “The Last of the Wine”. Graham cites Renault’s Greek-based Historical novels as one of her formative influences. I wouldn’t claim that “Black Ships” is as profound as the greatest of Renault’s novels but the two authors do have some qualities in common. Both are skilful story-tellers with the gift of writing deceptively simple prose. “Black Ships” is most similar to the “The King Must Die”, the first of  two novels in which Renault retold the myth of  Theseus. These books both treat a legendary hero as an historical figure, living in an era when religions centred on goddess-worship are waning. Renault stripped the story of Theseus of all its supernatural elements. Graham rationalizes aspects of the Aeneas myth – making him the son of a priestess of Aphrodite rather than a direct child of the goddess – but gives Gull genuine prophetic powers and a close if intermittant connection with the goddess she serves. Gull longs for divine guidance but most of the time she has to rely on her own wisdom.

Some readers have complained that “Black Ships” ought to be categorized as Historical Fiction rather than Fantasy. If you are expecting sea monsters and fighting skeletons you will be disappointed but the deities and divine realms of the late Bronze Age seem as real as the people who believe in them. To me, that is what makes a good Historical Fantasy. There are a few drawbacks to basing a novel on Virgil’s “Aeneid”. Many people have never heard of this epic while plenty who have hate it after being forced to translate the dull bits during Latin lessons. The poem is full of historical inaccuracies and, worst of all, features one of the least appealing of all ancient heroes. Aeneas is best known for abandoning women – his first wife after the fall of Troy and lovelorn Queen Dido in Carthage. It’s not surprising that Fantasy novels based on “The Aeneid” are rare – though Ursula le Guin’s “Lavinia” came out in the same year that “Black Ships” was published.

Graham tackles the problems with her source material by telling the story of the Trojans who became the legendary founders of Rome from an anti-heroic, female point of view and by making the background more consistent with history.  Her biggest change is to substitute New Kingdom Egypt for Carthage and an imperious Egyptian princess for the wronged Queen Dido. The princess is turned into a largely unsympathetic character so that Aeneas doesn’t seem such a jerk for leaving her. In my view, this is the weakest point in the plot. What does work well is linking the epic journey of the Wilusan survivors with the migrations of the “Sea Peoples”. This was a mass movement of groups from Asia desperate to settle in Mediterranean lands. It is easy to see parallels between the ancient Sea Peoples and today’s migrants and refugees who are struggling to make new lives for themselves in Europe. Graham writes with great compassion about displaced people who have been traumatized by the horrors of war.

Gull is quite a cool and detached character but I found her narrative voice compelling. She is a child of rape who was still much loved by her mother. Her story is full of examples of women facing grim circumstances with courage and resilience but most of the male characters are sympathetically treated too. This version of Aeneas is implausibly nice but he’s given enough guilt and self-doubt to make him interesting. An important element of the plot is the unusual love triangle that develops between Gull, Aeneas and Captain Xandros – a man with a complicated emotional history. Like Renault before her, Graham writes movingly about gender-blind forms of love which blurr the boundaries between friendship and passion. If you like the main characters in “Black Ships” you can meet them again in the other `Numinous World’ novels when they are reborn as “Companion Souls” into other historical periods. Until next time…



Cats are very much on my mind at the moment since I have a litter of young kittens in the house. So this week I’m going to recommend a book by an author who was particularly good at writing about cats – Robert Westall (1929-1993). His Fantasy novel “The Cats of Seroster” was published in 1984, with a fabulous cover designed to appeal to cat-lovers. It is currently out of print but there are plenty of cheap second-hand paperbacks around. The story is set in 16th century Europe and features a tribe of cats who collectively remember the days when they were revered in Ancient Egypt.

Somewhere in the south of France is a very old walled city, built on a rock riddled with caves. The city is famous for a breed of cats known as the Miw. They are twice the size of ordinary cats and golden-furred. The Miw are highly intelligent creatures who can send thoughts to each other and to the ordinary cats they refer to as the Weaker Brethren. For centuries the city was ruled by powerful Dukes who were catfriends but as the story begins a weak Duke has been murdered by a band of usurpers led by the cat-hating Little Paul. The Duke’s young heir is saved and hidden by Sehtek, the she-cat who leads the Miw and speaks with the voice of “the Goddess-in-her”.  She fears that under the new regime the witch-mania and persecution of cats which is spreading across Europe will reach her city. The greed and cruelty of Little Paul and his followers soon cause many people to flee the city but there is one hope. According to legend, whenever the city is under threat a new incarnation of the great warrior Seroster will rise with a golden cat by his side.

Sehtek sends a Miw male named Amon to tell her ally Horse (the collective mind of the wild white horses of the marshes) what has happened in the city. While in the marshes, Amon encounters a young Englishman called Cam. He is a wandering scholar whom people sometimes mistake for a wizard. Cam has been given a dagger by a mysterious blacksmith in return for taking a letter to the Seroster. As Cam makes his way towards the city he discovers that the dagger has alarming powers to change his personality and make him into an almost invincible warrior. Amon’s own journey back to the city is delayed by his decision to help a group of Brethren who are fleeing persecution. When he does get home, Amon finds that things have gone from bad to worse.

Cam discovers the secrets which lie beneath the city and, after a series of shocking events, finds himself leading the men, women and cats who want to restore the young Duke to power. Cam is the most unwilling of heroes and there are many other problems. The city is ably defended by experienced soldier, Sir Henri, Little Paul has spies everywhere, and the witch-burning Bishop of Toulouse and a crusader army is on its way. Can Cam fulfill his destiny without losing himself and can the Miw come up with a plan that will save their city?

Robert Westall was born and grew up in northern England. He served in the British Army for two years and was a teacher and an antique dealer before he became a full time author. He wrote a large number of novels and stories, mainly in the genres of Historical Fiction and Horror, and twice won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature – for “The Machine Gunners” (1975) and “The Scarecrows” (1981). Many of his books were originally published for children or teenagers but  Westall is often regarded as one of the finest of British war novelists. I’m guessing that someone read a synopsis of  “The Cats of Seroster” and thought that a Fantasy containing telepathic cats must be for children. However, it is not a book that I would give to a child. All the viewpoint characters in “The Cats of Seroster” are adults and the story deals with the brutal realities of war and religious persecution. This is an Historical Fantasy packed with dark humour and heartbreaking tragedies.

Reading “The Cats of Seroster” is rather like having a cat on your lap which mainly purrs but sometimes turns round and swipes you with all claws out. Westall wrote punchy prose and contemporary-style dialogue and he liked to slip in sudden shocks. Many authors would have centred the whole story on Cam but Westall chops the narrative up among numerous human and feline points of view. He is very good at representing what Amon calls “the clatter and bumble of men”. Giving us a cat’s eye view of human conflicts points up the absurdity of many of the things which people kill each other for. I’m confident that Westall knew everything there was to know about siege-warfare and military strategy and that all the gory details are accurate. Some of the most violent events  are described with a detached humour which could seem callous but the underlying feel of the book is compassionate. When Westall wrote about wars he always seemed to empathize with decent men and woman on both sides of the conflict. In “The Cats of Seroster” two of the most sympathetic characters are on the “wrong side” in the plot. Sir Henri is a professional soldier trying to do his duty while mourning the end of the age of chivalry. His brave little she-cat, Castlemew, becomes an outcast from cat society rather than abandon the man she loves.

The depiction of cat society, both among the aristocratic Miw and the ordinary Brethren, is one of the great joys of this novel. Cats feature in much of Westall’s work. Outstanding examples include his children’s novel, “Blitzcat”, which recounts episodes from World War II from a cat’s point of view, and the chilling Horror story, “Yaxley’s Cat”. He was a loving but unsentimental observer of the way that cats behave. The ordinary cats in this novel have splendid names such as Nibblefur and Gristletongue. The minds of Ripfur and Tornear, the two black toms who accompany Amon on his journey, are dominated by the joys of hunting, fighting and mating, while a she-cat in the marshes only thinks contentedly of “Full-belly, lie-sun, lick-fur.” The Miw , who are descended from the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt, are shown as more intellectual creatures who worship Father Re and Mother Bastet. Their eternal warrior Seroster is based on the legendary figure of Sesostris, who combined the qualities of several actual rulers of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Miw (the Ancient Egyptian word for cat) do have some magical powers but they mainly dominate the city through their superior intelligence. Sehtek’s plan for dealing with the fanatical Bishop of Toulouse is particularly clever.

Cat-lovers should be warned that there are a number of distressing feline deaths in this book, though the impact is softened by visions of the cats being welcomed into the afterlife by the cat-goddess, Bastet. Westall never wrote about wars without showing the terrible collateral damage to civilians and the physical and mental costs endured by the fighters. Many Fantasy novels have reluctant heroes but Cam is more consistently reluctant than most. To him the magical dagger is a curse rather than a blessing. He doesn’t want to lose his own identity within a violent archetype – even in a very good cause. For much of the story, Cam is a failed hero and Amon is a failed leader but then, as an old soldier tells them, “None of us know what we are doing”. “The Cats of Seroster” is a brilliant book about cats which also celebrates how brave and resourceful people can be. Until next time…


P.S. If you are curious about my kittens and their mother, you can see pictures of them at


Each January I recommend an antidote to the festive season and this year it is `The Book of the Dead’. No, not the collections of funerary texts known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Tibetan Book of the Dead. This `The Book of the Dead’ is an anthology of `original stories of mummies and mayhem’ edited by Jared Shurin. It came out in 2013 and is one of a series of interesting anthologies published by Jurassic. You can get it as an ebook but the striking black and white illustrations by Garen Ewing and the creepy cover look better in the paperback edition. As I’m an Egyptologist myself, I am not easy to please when it comes to mummy stories but I found plenty to enjoy in this collection.

`The Book of the Dead’ is introduced by Dr John J. Johnston, Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society, and contains nineteen stories by a mix of American and British authors from the genres of Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. The anthology is dedicated to one of my favourite Victorian heroines – Amelia Edwards, the remarkable traveller and writer who founded the Egypt Exploration Society in 1882 `with the purpose of protecting and raising public awareness of the monuments of ancient and medieval Egypt.’ Since Amelia wrote ghost stories and kept the heads of two Egyptian mummies in her bedroom, I’m sure she would have loved the gruesome delights on offer here. Some of the authors have based their stories on scholarly research but Johnston makes it clear that this was optional because `facts should never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good tale.’

A few of the stories are actually set in Egypt, such as Gail Carriger’s `The Curious Case of the Werewolf that Wasn’t, The Mummy that Was, and the Cat in the Jar’ (an acidic prequel to her Parasol Protectorate series) and Will Hill’s poignant `Three Memories of Death’. Others follow Ancient Egyptian mummies who have ended up in countries such as America (Paul Cornell’s `Ramasses on the Frontier’), England (Jonathon Green’s `Egyptian Death and the Afterlife: Mummies, Rooms 62-3′) or France (Louis Greenberg’s hilarious `Akhenaten Goes to Paris’). Not all the mummies in this collection hail from Egypt. The prize for most grotesque story should probably go to David Bryher’s `The Dedication of Sweetheart Abbey’ in which a space-age Lady Devorguilla has her husband’s mummy grafted onto her back. In `Tollund’, Adam Roberts gives a clever twist to the standard `archaeologists fall victim to the mummy’s curse’ plot by having arrogant Egyptian scholars investigating bog-mummies in primitive Denmark. This story has a wonderful dank and foggy atmosphere and some moments of gut-wrenching horror, though I found its Science Fiction ending rather disappointing.

The Ancient Egyptians didn’t just mummify people. Mummified cats are the inspiration for several stories in this collection, including Jenni Hill’s charming `The Cats of Beni Hasan’ and`Mysterium Tremendum’  by Molly Tanzer, a decidedly unsentimental tale of an undead Pharaoh determined to be reunited with his pet cat after `twenty-seven long centuries’. Hill’s story is based on the historical fact that thousands of cat mummies were smashed up and spread on fields as fertilizer. Other contributors have focused on different indignities which Egyptian mummies have been subjected to, such as their wrappings being turned into paper (Roger Luckhurst’s `The Thing of Wrath’) or their bodies ground up and used as condiments or to make ink (`Bit-U-Men’ by Maria Dahvana Headly). No wonder most fictional mummies come back to life in a very bad mood.

I’m glad to say that all the mummies I’ve encountered have stayed safely dead, but people have long been fascinated by the idea that the Ancient Egyptians used magic and mummification to cheat death. Some of the stories in this volume imagine more modern methods of ensuring that the essence of person never dies, such as an afterlife on the internet (`Henry’ by Glen Mehn). In modern fiction and in Horror movies, those who try to live for ever are often classed as monsters. It seems that we want corpses who refuse to stay in their tombs to be punished, even when their motivation is eternal love. `Old Souls’ by David Thomas Moore is a subtle tale of a relationship spanning many lives which has become a bitter torment, while Lou Morgan’s `Her Heartbeat, An Echo’ describes a museum guard’s tragic obsession with an ancient Egyptian princess weary of immortality. Very few love stories involving mummies have a happy ending.

The tales in `The Book of the Dead’ range in tone from the heartlessly horrific to the hauntingly sad. In between there is a surprising amount of humour. I was particularly tickled by the long-lost mummy of Akhenaten trying to get through French passport control after putting on a wig and a body stocking and slathering his face with bees wax `to look less….dead’.  As you might expect with a multi-author anthology, I didn’t like all the stories but a hit rate of around 70% seemed pretty high to me. If you choose to open this particular `Book of the Dead’ you will get the bonus of finding out how The Egypt Exploration Society is still helping to study and preserve the remains of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. In these troubled times, it is a task that is more urgent than ever. Happy New Year.



This week instead of the usual book recommendation I’m issuing a plea for everyone to remember the original meaning of the word Isis.  When you Google Isis now instead of finding articles about the Egyptian goddess Isis, or the stretch of the river Thames that shares her name, the top listings are all about the terrorist group that I shall refer to as IS (Islamic State – though they have precious little in common with the noble teachings of the Prophet). As an Egyptologist, it makes me very sad that a cowardly bunch of murderers are blackening the name of a goddess who stood for all that was best about Ancient Egyptian religion. Some organizations and companies which are called after the goddess or the river are even having to choose new names because of the negative publicity.  This is trivial compared to the massacres committed by IS, but while I’m powerless to do anything about the atrocities in Syria and Iraq, perhaps I can do something to reclaim the good name of Isis by describing her on Fantasy Reads.

I’m sure most of my readers know that the Ancient Egyptians worshipped a wide range of male and female deities. From the late 3rd millennium BCE onwards, Isis was one of their most important goddesses. She embodied the throne of the pharaohs and she was most often shown as a woman wearing a throne symbol on her head. In myth, she is one of the children of the Sky Goddess and the Earth God. She and her brother Osiris were said to have fallen in love while they were still in the womb (they do things differently in myths) and they were destined to rule Egypt together after the Sun God, Ra, went to live in the heavens. The reign of Isis and Osiris was a Golden Age for humanity but it was brought to an end by the chaos-god Seth, who was jealous of his brother Osiris. Seth brutally murdered Osiris, tore his body in pieces and scattered them where he hoped they would never be found. Isis was distraught but she managed to recover nearly all the pieces and to resurrect Osiris for just long enough for her to conceive a child by him. Then she hid in the marshes to give birth to her miraculous son, Horus. Seth, who had seized the throne of Egypt, attempted to poison young Horus but Isis persuaded the Sun God to heal her son. When Horus was old enough, he challenged Seth to a series of combats. Isis used cunning and magic to help her son defeat Seth. So Horus became the ruler of Egypt, and the prototype for all Egyptian pharaohs, while his father Osiris ruled the Underworld.

The Egyptians thought of Isis as the ideal wife and mother but her life was full of suffering and struggles. You can tell from the outline above that Isis didn’t take those sufferings meekly. She always fights back and she is the dominant partner in her relationships with her husband and son. In the story known as `The Secret Name of Ra’, Isis uses her great knowledge of magic to create a snake which poisons the Sun God. Then she tricks Ra into telling her his true name so that she can cure him. This sounds ruthless but in mythological terms farsighted Isis is doing the right thing. She is making sure that her future son will have the power contained in the true name of Ra to help him win the battle between Order and Chaos. According to Egyptian texts, Isis was `more clever than millions of men’ and a better guardian of Egypt than `millions of soldiers’. To look at it another way, she’s the archetype of everything that the men of IS don’t want women to be – well-educated, independent-minded and strong.

Isis was believed to use her powers to protect the helpless and this is shown in images of the goddess enfolding her husband with winged arms or holding her baby son on her lap. Her maternal tenderness was ultimately extended to all humanity and she was thought to help both the living and the dead. The Egyptians sometimes reimagined Isis as an ordinary women mourning her husband and struggling to support her child and avoid her abusive brother. Traditional laments that Isis and her sister were supposed to have sung for Osiris were recited at Egyptian funerals and stories about Isis and Horus were used as part of spells to cure sick children. By the end of the first millennium BCE, Isis was widely worshipped as the compassionate Queen of Heaven who offered a happy afterlife to people of all ranks and nationalities. Her beautiful temple on the island of Philae (yes, the comet-probe is named after it) continued to function long after Egypt became a Christian country.

If you want to find out more about Isis, look at `The Great Goddesses of Egypt’ by Barbara S.Lesko or `Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses and Traditions of Ancient Egypt’  by Geraldine Pinch (that’s me when I’m wearing my Egyptologist hat). Or you could try Plutarch’s `Of Isis and Osiris’, possibly the best book on mythology ever written, or even Robert Graves’ translation of `The Golden Ass’, a very naughty novel by Lucius Apuleius in which the cursed hero is eventually rescued by Isis. So, I hope that the next time you see the word Isis you will think of the goddess who grieved rather than a callous terrorist organization. Do start calling the terrorists IS or Isil instead and, as a tiny act of defiance, why not mention Isis the goddess, Isis the river, or even Isis the cute dog from `Downton Abbey,’ in whatever social media you use? As the Ancient Egyptians would say, thank you a million times.