You wouldn’t believe it (I wouldn’t believe it for sure) – on Wednesday I posted my wish here, on Friday the book was brought to me! Woohoo! If the life was always so nice and easy we would live in heaven! Ok back to earth: here is the review.
Paperback: 513 pages
Publisher: Viking (1994)
Genre: historical fiction (ancient Egypt)
Target group: adults
House of Dreams is a fictional diary of Lady Thu of Aswat.
Thu, a peasant girl living in a small godforsaken village, is an unusual child and not only because her eyes, inherited from the foreign father, are blue. She is uncommonly intelligent and ambitious too. Unfortunately her life choices seem to be severely limited – she is bound to become an illiterate midwife, like her mother and grandmother. Thu is strong-willed and resourceful, though – she wants to find a way out of her cage at all costs. She pesters her older brother, who has the good luck of attending a temple school for future scribes, and he finally agrees to teach her to read and write. It is of course not enough. Thu becomes really desperate and all of a sudden she thinks her prayers were finally answered – the great seer Hui, who is also a physician to the Pharaoh, visits Aswat to commune with their god of war, Wepwawet, in his temple. Thu climbs his barge at night and begs Hui to take her to his house in Pi-Ramesse and teach his art. She offers herself in return. Hui, impressed by her eyes, courage, and intelligence, agrees but he doesn’t make Thu his lover (at least not then). His plans for her are much more far-sighted, ambitious and dangerous – for that she must also stay a virgin.
Thu is kept in Hui’s comfortable house and slowly she is transformed from am ungainly peasant girl into a healer and a young aristocratic beauty – well-bred, fully literate, well-groomed and well-behaved. Hui takes her to the royal palace, officially to diagnose and cure the middle-aged Pharaoh Ramesses II, known for his philandering habit. As the clever seer predicted, Ramesses is instantly smitten with the nubile, witty Thu – so smitten that the girl is instantly invited to become a royal concubine. It is a huge social advance for a daughter of a midwife and an ex-mercenary. However Thu thinks she would prefer to marry Hui, her teacher and benefactor but also a man of uncommon beauty (really uncommon, trust me!) but the seer refuses her shy advances – he has other plans for his pupil. Finally Thu agrees to join the harem and lands in another cage. The royal quarters are undoubtedly a luxurious place to live in but still they remain just a bigger cage with very limited options for such an ambitious young girl. Still Thu is determined to use them all.
Very quickly she becomes the king’s favourite concubine, showered with gifts, jewellery and attention. Now she wants to be a queen. She is not aware of the fact that she has been cruelly manipulated by people she trusts the most. She gets pregnant against her intentions (mysteriously her contraception cure, so efficient so far, fails her), gives birth to a boy and then, a normal course of events in the case of concubines, loses the Pharaoh’s interest. A new girl, younger, fresher and equally ambitious, appears in the palace. Thu is furious, humiliated but more than ever determined to return to her previous position or even achieve something more. She visits Hui, her beloved master, and he cleverly suggests a way out. When you are angry and disappointed you tend to make mistakes. Thu makes a lot of them. She has to learn a new lesson – very bitter and almost fatal – if you are just a poor peasant girl, with no social status or relatives to speak of, you will become the scapegoat of the powerful and the rich as soon as something goes wrong. Sometimes even before anything goes wrong. Often not being aware of it.
What I liked:
This book is, in my humble opinion, a perfect example how any historical fiction novel should be written. It is based on real story of a coup d’etat performed by one of Ramesses’s concubines which description was saved in several source documents (those sources are listed in the book). Of course the authoress added some fictional characters, filling in the story very nicely; she also decided to make the concubine speak for herself and explain how by her own choice she became a cold-hearted murderess to fulfill her impossible dreams.
It was a brilliant story – creative, original, fun and in almost perfect accordance with our current knowledge about the culture of ancient Egypt. The characters are well-rounded and psychologically believable, especially Hui and Thu. The end is not tragic although it does leave you a bit sad (and I did what I could in order not to spoil you!). In short I was enthralled! Young Thu won my heart although she could be incredibly naïve, cruel and infuriating at the same time.
What I didn’t like:
I found just one minor flaw: talking with Thu one night, the Pharaoh expresses his anger because Egyptian peasants are not aware of the current troubles of their country. I almost snorted. Firstly, hello Your Highness – these people can’t read and write, the majority of them! How can they find out what’s happening? Watching TV? Ok, sorry, unfair question…looking at a comic carved on a pyramid?
Secondly, I doubt any pharaoh would really like his subjects to know about any political troubles. Ancient Egypt was not a democracy and pharaohs were gods – there can’t be any troubles in a country ruled by a living god, right? It is always the official line of autocrats old and new – all is in order, nothing unusual happens, the country is strong, the king is good, healthy, wise, far-sighted and knows the best, continue what you are doing, do not think too much…
I’ve already ordered the sequel (House of Illusions) – should I say more?