“Egypt” is a tale set late in Thebes in the 18th dynasty, shortly after Tutankhamun, the “Boy Pharaoh,” died in 1323 B.C. His widow, Ankhesenamun, had to marry to keep the throne, and settled on an aging member of the court, Ay. As the story opens, Ay, too is dying, and word is that Horemheb, the leader of Egypt’s mighty army, seeks the throne. Egypt is the pre-eminent empire in the world, but has been warring for years with the Hittites, who operate in what is now Turkey.
For ordinary Egyptians, life in Thebes was hard.
Some of the author’s accounts of poverty resemble descriptions in contemporary news stories. The story centers on Rahotep, a detective in the Medjay, Thebes’ police force. He’s as good and honest a detective as there is on the force, and that, ironically, has hindered his career advancement in a society as corrupt as the one in Thebes.
Rahotep has a loving wife and a couple of children he doesn’t see often enough, and the ensuing strains on the family are understandable. Gang activities — especially violence associated with opium trafficking — occupies much of his professional time. Something changes recently, however, when a mysterious new gang and a new source of opium moves in on Thebes.
Rahotep finds a group of dead Nubian boys who were in the lowest level of the drug trade in Thebes. They had been beheaded, and Rahotep finds a piece of papyrus bearing an eight-pointed star in one of their mouths. He is intrigued by this calling card. Then his best friend, a fellow police officer, tells him he’s got leads into the new gang and a leader code-named Obsidian, and asks for his help. Rahotep turns him town. The next day his friend is executed -— beheaded and mutilated — and a papyrus bearing an eight-pointed star is found in his mouth.
Rahotep isn’t just a good cop.
He’s also a lifelong friend of Nakht, a royal envoy, whom the queen commissions to lead a secret mission to the Hittite empire. Nakht’s purpose is to persuade the Hittite ruler, who has several sons, to share one with Egypt’s soon to be widowed queen.
Not only would that ensure her continued reign, it also would seal peace between Egypt and the Hittites and hold the potential for greater prosperity for both empires. Rahotep’s mission is to protect Nakht and, if the Hittites part with a son, to protect him as well on their return trip.
Rahotep has a separate, personal mission. He wants to trace the source of the opium flooding into Thebes and kill the man who murdered his best friend.
Neither mission goes quite as planned.
The Hittite king offers Egypt a son, a weakling, as much to mock Egypt as for any other reason, and on their return trip the small band of Egyptians is set upon by marauders known as the Army of Chaos.
To the rescue come Horemheb and units of the Egyptian Army. Horemheb, who won’t abide a Hittite on Egypt’s throne, has learned of the mission and shows little mercy.
He also won’t tolerate a drug-ridden society. He knows Rahotep’s reputation as a seeker of mysteries and spares him only because Rahotep vows to find the source of the opium trade.
“Egypt” is a good tale.
In fact it’s the third in a trilogy on ancient Egypt, though this episode stands alone nicely. Drake writes well, though his reference to Akkadian as the “lingua franca” of international diplomacy at the time was a curious anachronism.
His accounts of life — meals, smells, livelihoods, clothing, activities, perils —invite the reader into ancient Thebes.
His plot and subplots are credible and his characters plausible.
Although Egypt doesn’t have the ruler Rahotep had hoped for, this seeker of mysteries overcomes his personal demons and matures during the novel. “Egypt: The Book of Chaos” is a good read.
In addition to novels about Egypt, Drake also has is a successful screenwriter and award-winning poet.
Walt Braun is the editorial page editor at the Manhattan Mercury.