the woman who would be king

the woman who would be king//wanderaven

The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

Oooooo, I wonder how many Egyptologists this book is pissing off?

Maybe all sorts, maybe none (I'm not an Egyptologist, if that's not already clear), but I do know that I've seen some angry words written by reviewers.

They're concerned that Cooney doesn't know (with absolute, complete certainty) what really happened with every single detail of Hatshepsut's coming to power, reign, or intimate thoughts and relationships.

Seriously?? Hatshepsut reigned 3500 years ago, in a political culture notorious for whitewashing every detail of history to be in the victor's favour. What do you expect from an author writing a biography of such a woman? First hand diary entries of her daily ablutions and thoughts?

Also, before the reader even embarks on the biography, Cooney explicitly explains this problematic influence on her narrative in the prologue, making it clear that some of the narrative is posited theories and suppositions.

the woman who would be king//wanderaven

And if anyone around can put forth these theories with conviction and authority, Cooney certainly seems well qualified to do so (certainly more so than someone like me - and most other reviewers, I might add - who loves ancient Egyptian history but certainly couldn't write or talk about it with any level of respectability).

And despite this disclaimer at the beginning, Cooney still labors to make it clear throughout the book with phrases like, "We'll never know for sure, but..." fronting ideas about how Hatshepsut and those her around her might have felt or acted. Cooney seems to base these theories on a fine balance of her knowledge and education of the history presented, and how most humans, regardless of their time, might have felt given the circumstances.

Is your name Susan or John and you really wish it could be more interesting?

If you were an ancient Egyptian elite, you could change your name on a whim, every few months or so, and make it as interesting or beloved or heroic as you'd like! 

the woman who would be king//wanderaven

When Hatshepsut made herself king (not queen - she was co-ruler king next to her nephew/stepson), she changed her name in all sorts of ways, intentionally blending together feminine and masculine names (and they all sounded glorious and beautiful and high-achieving). She did the same with her public image at the beginning of her rule, commissioning statues of herself wearing the (masculine) royal kilt and masculine headdress but also bare chested with obvious, feminine breasts. She later portrayed herself as more and more masculine; Cooney presents this conversion less as a desire to cross-dress or even adapt to the station she found herself in, but more of a physical presentation of her abiding belief that her god-husband, Amun, had merged with her physically and spiritually.

This book is just absolutely fascinating. Other scholars might cite Hatshepsut's actions as nothing more than clear and ruthless political machinations but Cooney, while acknowledging this likely and necessary reality, also believes that Hatshepsut quite likely was also honestly and deeply spiritual and really believed her proclamations that her power was bestowed upon her by Amun. This is an engrossing and accessible biography, whether you're interested in ancient Egypt or the life of an early female ruler (or both).

*I was thrilled to receive an advanced copy of this book for review from Random House.