cover image Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings

Cecelia Holland. Forge, $21.95 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86334-0

First published in 1977 under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Eliot Carter, this uneven historical displays Holland's great talents, but in embryo form. The first--and better half--of the novel is narrated by a fictionalized Howard Carter, the Englishman who discovered Tut's tomb in 1922. Holland does an excellent job of rendering Carter's strained relationship with his upper-crust patron, Lord Carnarvon, while surrounded by obtuse British bureaucrats, archeologists more interested in treasure than history and a culture that Carter loves despite its otherness. Stiff and intellectually arrogant, the Carter portrayed here relates better to artifacts than to living humans, a trait that costs him a yearned-for relationship with the daughter of his partner and that proves to be his tragic flaw. The second half of the book flashes back to the ancient Egypt of Tut and concerns three common Egyptians--a mason, a beggar and a maid--who are variously damaged and nurtured by the royals, who have their own problems. Holland ably conjures up the sensuous but harsh culture of Tut's Egypt, but her ancient past lacks the vitality of her early 20th century. Even so, this is a must for Holland fans and solid fare for everyone else. (June) FYI: In a prefatory note, Holland reveals that this novel was inspired by a conversation she enjoyed with Lord Carnarvon's son.