Monday, September 24, 2007

River God, by Wilbur Smith [3]

***/***** (3/5)

I love brave and honest men, they are so easily manipulated.

Except for the last parts of this 528-page hardcover published in 1993, I found myself mostly captivated by Wilbur Smith's RIVER GOD: A NOVEL OF ANCIENT EGYPT. The book silhouettes a compelling tale of Egypt in 1780-B.C. embroiled in bitter war and eventually giving rise to a line of princes and pharaohs that lifts Egypt to the peak of its glory. Entirely written in a very unique first-person, we journey through two generations with our main character, a boastful and vain eunuch slave narrator. Although I can't say I really liked his character, Taita's first-person narration strikes a very fresh appeal: he's a eunuch slave, he's vain, he's brilliant, he's artistic, he's compassionate, he's vengeful, and he loves like a man. Ultimately, he's very human. In the epic RIVER GOD, we're privy to political intrigue, conspiracy, love, war, violence, kingdoms lost, despair and triumph. We read about an Egyptian civilization turned upside down with the advent of a new technology (wheel), and the introduction of a new animal (the horse). I enjoyed the battle warfare and the passionate moments of love between Lostris and Tanus. The book can be violent at times, and if you're sensitive to slavery, you may not like this historical tale of ancient Egypt.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Although Wilbur Smith packs some page-turning enthralling moments, I found the last 50 pages overwhelmingly melancholy. After a heart-wrenching love story spanning most of the first half in this novel, I couldn't take the sad ending. Taita's self-aggrandizing commentary wearied me and his love for his mistress Lostris as a man irked me. Granted, these are very human emotions especially for a handsome, brilliant man castrated after he's enjoyed a woman's passion, but I was begging for some other perspective in this 528-page Egyptian epic. I especially wanted Tanus' perspective. From Taita's point-of-view, everyone else is too one-dimensional: Tanus the redoubtable honorable warrior, Lostris the stubbornly passionate Queen, Kratas the jocular ruffian, and even Prince Memnon seems drab. For most of the novel, Lostris affectionately considers Taita her father and brother. At the end, Lostris wishes for a different kind of love with Taita in the next life. Considering the fact that Lostris and Tanus had to hide their passion and love for each other in this life and they never knew each other as husband and wife, I found this last wish of Lostris' especially sad. More so than the deaths. Did she love Taita more than she led on in the beginning? Had Taita not been a eunuch, would she have eventually cast aside Tanus intimately? After a gripping battle in the middle where the invading Hyksos thoroughly rout a well-trained and disciplined Egyptian army, I found our protagonists' retreat back through the cataracts south of the Nile very, very protracted. Only to arrive at a very unsatisfying conclusion. But alas, such is history.

I'm not sure who is the River God in RIVER GOD. Ostensibly, it may refer to Tanus' role in the first half when he's acclaimed Akh-Horus, an Egyptian God. However, our narrator's influence overshadows all other characters here and his love for his mistress Lostris eclipses that of Tanus' love for Lostris... at least from Taita's perspective. The book firmly belongs to our eunuch-slave narrator Taita: playwright, inventor, surgeon, economic investor, astrologist, architect, singer, scholar, and most of all, devoted slave to his mistress Lostris. Since Taita appears to be behind every vital event and innovative thought for Egypt, if there's any god here, it's Taita. What else can you expect from the author of these scrolls?

The Story.

It is a time of turmoil in ancient Egypt ruled by a weak king, the Pharaoh Mamose. The Pharaoh has lost half his kingdom (Lower Egypt) to a usurper while robber bands rampantly plague his citizens. The loss of the fertile delta and the lower kingdom (relative to the Nile's flow) beggars Egypt's citizens while the robber barons discourage profitable trade. Pharaoh Mamose is a morose fellow because of these problems, but he also worries over a lack of a male heir. Hundreds of wives have failed to produce one son for him! In the midst of this declining time for Egypt, we have our eunuch Taita, slave to Pharaoh Mamose's most powerful, wealthy yet sadistic lord, the Lord Intef. Intef's 14 year-old daughter Lady Lostris loves the powerful warrior Tanus whose father was paupered and discredited with treachery. Of course, Taita serves as the link between our two lovers Lostris and Tanus.

The story opens at the festival of Osiris (an Egyptian god) with a play written and directed by Taita wherein both Tanus and Lostris partake major roles. Lostris' wealthy father Intef hosts the entire festival including the play where the Pharaoh sits in attendance amongst other nobility and favored gentry. There's some treachery right of the bat as Intef strives to eliminate his enemies.

As the story rages on, the honorable and capable Tanus refuses to supplant Pharaoh Mamose from the crown despite enjoying the support of the entire army and faces possible death as a result. While Tanus steps aside to watch his love Lostris married to Pharaoh, Tanus numbly accepts the edict forcing him to evict the robber barons plaguing Upper Egypt in two years time else submit to penalty of death by strangulation. The first half is fairly heart-wrenching as both Tanus and Lostris drown in their own misery while Lostris' slave Taita saves both from attempted suicide.

...I had seen both their faces light up at the intimate touch, and sensed their mutual passion like thunder in the air. I knew that they could not restrain themselves for much longer, and that even Tanus' sense of duty and honour must in the end succumb to so great a love as theirs...

After aiding his mistress Lostris cope with her first painful time and loss of virginity to Pharaoh, Taita whips Tanus back into shape and masterminds the scheme which will help Tanus fulfill his promise to Pharaoh and destroy the robber barons. A new legend rises amongst the people of Egypt of Akh-Horus, the Egyptian god destroying the robbers and protecting his people. Trade and economy fluorish as a result of Tanus' and Taita's efforts.

While I was still busy with the lamp and my back was turned to the entrance, my mistress (Lostris) screamed. It was a sound so high and filled with such mortal terror that I was struck with equal dread, and the courses of my blood ran thick and slow as honey, although my heart raced like the hooves of the flying gazelle. I spun about and reached for my dagger, but when I saw the monster whose bulk filled the doorway, I froze without touching the weapon on my belt. I knew instinctively that my puny blade would avail us not at all against whatever this creature might be.

In the feeble light of the lamp the form was indistinct and distorted. I saw that it had a human shape, but it was too large to be a man, and the grotesque head convinced me that this was indeed that dreadful crocodile-headed monster from the underworld that devours the hearts of those who are found wanting on the scales of Thoth, the monster depicted on the walls of the tomb. The head gleamed with reptilian scales, and the beak was that of an eagle or a gigantic turtle. The eyes were deep and fathomless pits that stared at us implacably. Great wings sprouted from its shoulders. Half-furled, they flapped about the towering body like those of a falcon at bate. I expected the creature to launch itself on those and to rend my mistress (Lostris) with brazen talons. She must have dreaded this as much as I, for she screamed again as she crouched at the monster's feet.

Then suddenly I realized that the creature was not winged, but that the folds of a long woolen cape, such as the Bedouin wear, were flogging on the wind. While we were still frozen by this horrible presence, it raised both hands and lifted off the gilded war helmet with the visor fashioned like the head of eagle. Then it shook its head and a mass of red-gold curls tumbled won on to the broad shoulders.

'From the top of the cliff I saw you coming through the storm,' it said in those dear familiar tones.

My mistress screamed again, this time with wildly ringing joy. 'Tanus!'

She flew to him, and he gathered up her up as though she were a child and lifted her so high that her head brushed the rock roof. Then he brought her down and folded her to his chest. From the cradle of his arms, she reached up with her mouth for his, and it seemed that they might devour each other with the strength of their need.

Much to our narrator Taita's heartbreak and sorrow, the book finally joins our separated lovers Tanus and Lostris while a wind storm secludes Tanus, Lostris and Taita in a burial cave. Eerily, although Taita never really laments over Lostris' loss of virginity to Pharaoh, Taita mourns the consummation of the love Tanus and Lostris bear for each other. Though Taita loves both Lostris and Tanus and though Taita is a eunuch, Taita envies Tanus nonetheless. The import of this love affair engenders the son which will carry Pharaoh's crown.

The mystery and intrigue behind the robber barons are revealed after Tanus' allotted time to bring them to heel comes to pass. A threat greater than the usurper in Lower Egypt and the robber bands soon arises out of the northeast: the Hyksos and their Shepherd King Salitis. The Hyksos sweep everything in their path and introduce our narrator Taita to the wheel, horse and chariot. The second half of the novel dragged quite a bit as remnants of the Egyptian civilization flee on the Nile down south, ever south. They must traverse six cataracts and endure over two decades before they're able to return and reclaim Upper Egypt. By this time, the Prince Memnon, Lostris & Tanus' son, is a man and ready to take back what is his.

Mostly captivating and enjoyable warfare/love, I could have done without the second half and the sad, overwhelmingly melancholy conclusion to this novel. Yes, I'm probably a sucker for happy endings.

More ramblings...

One of my biggest problems had to do with the plot device that has Taita scheme to pass off Lostris & Tanus' son as Lostris & the Pharaoh's son. First, I didn't like how Lostris was so amenable to sleep with the Pharaoh after she and Taita discover she's pregnant. I had hoped she would recoil from going to the Pharaoh's bed after her dreamy lovemaking with Tanus, . Eventually, Taita could convince her that sleeping with the Pharaoh would best serve the unborn child's interests and she could begrudgingly acquiesce. As it is, she's too ready to go to another man (the Pharaoh) after Tanus. Secondly, you would think one of Pharaoh's hundreds of other wives would have already attempted to pass off another man's son as Pharaoh's! Taita notes how the sexual appetites of some of Pharaoh's wives knew no bounds, so you're telling me not one of them thought to pass of another man's son as Pharaoh's? Seriously, why does it work for Taita and Lostris?

Worst, the second time Lostris is pregnant, Taita divines a dream to explain her condition without implicating Tanus. Taita dissembles that he dreamed the old Pharaoh resurrected from his sarcophagus in spirit form to impregnate the Queen Lostris. First, it seems ludicrous that this deception wouldn't work on the late Pharaoh during Lostris' first pregnancy yet will work like a charm on a hundreds of others. Secondly, I love how Tanus is too proud and honorable for kingship yet will consent to passing off illegitimate children of his as the previous Pharaoh's. Talk about hypocrisy, I didn't see how Wilbur Smith is able to credit Tanus' character. He won't even marry Lostris after her second pregnancy and assume regency for a short while until Memnon is of age. Tanus' character reeks of a duplicitous air of self-important morality. I just don't get how Tanus justifies deceiving the Egyptian crown with his own children yet won't take a temporary regency? He doesn't care that he'll never be able to acknowledge his own children, and that nevermind other people, but even his own children will not know their own true father? It's actually quite sad, to his last dying day, none of Tanus' children know him as their true father and Tanus makes Taita promise not to reveal it.

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