Thursday, May 16, 2013

Non-Fiction Review: The Shadow King



The Shadow King


Marchant, J. (2013). The Shadow King. Da Capo Press


[Genre: Egyptology]


Thanks to Netgalley and De Capo Press for an advanced reader copy


I was totally one of those kids that loved ancient history. The Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, you name it I was there. I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged my interests, and my American aunt gave me what became one of my FAVOURITE books - I pictorial book of pieces exhibited in the USA Tutankhamun exhibition. I pored over that thing like nobodies business. I bet I wasn't the only kid like that. It's been a while since I've read a good book on Egyptology and Jo Marchant's The Shadow King was a real treat, bringing back up that little kid still inside me.

In The Shadow King Marchant traces the journey of Tutankhamun from his discovery by Howard Carter in the 1920's to the present, a modern story of academic infighting, scientific advances, political upheavel and societal fascination. Her stated aim is to unravel the half stories that are often presented about Tutankhamun in over-hyped TV documentaries to find the truth, or as much of it as anyone can know, about the beloved King Tut.

Although Marchant's work is obviously pop-journalistic rather than scientific (though she does come from a scientific background), she does a fantastic job of her topic. One gets the impression that her research is very thorough. She writes with a conversational and engaging style, without glossing over or dumbing down the complex social, political and scientific forces at play in this story. And that makes The Shadow King a brilliant read. Tutankhamun is brought to life, not as the mysterious boy king, but the modern mummy and its impossible not to love it. What I respect the most about Marchant's work here is that she doesn't ultimately make any conclusions and admits that it is not her place to do so - it's perhaps this fact that sets The Shadow King apart from comparative titles. Instead, she wisely points out that in truth we know little more about the reality of Tutankhamun's life (and death) than we did when Carter pulled him out of the ground and possibly never will. The science is to unreliable (given the state of the 3000 year old mummy), the politics to complex (especially given Egypt's recent revolution). That honesty, given the rumours and opposing viewpoints that swirl around Tut, is the best way this book could have gone.

I loved this one. If you're anything like me, you'll love it as well. And as I've already seen another reviewer suggest, try reading it to your kids, so they can feel the fascination too.

4 stars

The Shadow King is released June 4th.

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