Book Review: Day of the False King
The second installment in this series, which follows the adventures of Semerket, Egyptian Clerk of Investigations and Secrets, in 20th Dynasty Egypt, does not disappoint. Semerket’s ex-wife Naia and Rami, a young boy whom he befriended in Year of the Hyenas, have been sent as slaves to Babylon, and Semerket receives a fragment of a note indicating that they are in danger. Upon appealing to Rameses IV, the new Pharaoh, who owes Semerket his life and his throne, he is given permission to seek them and bring them back to Egypt, as well as a sensitive diplomatic mission to the ruler of Babylon. (Oops - I originally put "king" but when reading this over remembered that one very strong point made in the book was that Babylon, unlike Egypt, didn't have a king.)
In Babylon, which is seething under foreign occupation (shades of modern day Iraq?) Sermerket quickly learns that he can trust no one, not even his own country’s ambassador. The raid on the plantation where Naia was a maid is rumored to have been undertaken by resistance fighters, but evidence points to Egyptian involvement. A remarkably clever and sophisticated slave, a seductive transvestite, and a pair of spies who stick to Sermerket like glue even after they’re called off are only a few of the many colorful characters who help him solve the several mysteries he faces and find out what happened to Naia and Rami.
One of the risks of writing about a hard-bitten and embittered character such as Semerket is that he will either become totally unsympathetic or, if his life improves sufficiently, lose the “edge” that makes him so interesting in the first place. Moving him to a different culture was a brilliant move for Geagley, since Semerket is thrown slightly off balance by the strangeness and is forced to show some of his vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen whether he will continue to maintain the balancing act.
The book also provides some fascinating insights into the Babylonian politics of the time, some quotations from The Lament for Ur (which appears to have similarities to the biblical book of Lamentations, if only because the emotions felt by the survivors of a devastated city probably don’t differ much), and ancient medical practice. I only wish that, on his website if not in the book, Geagley would provide some information about his sources and recommended reading for those who would like to learn more.