Susan Slack asked me to read her novel "Hidden from the Face of Humans". It is a historical fiction centering on the 30th Egyptian Dynasty (three generations). I don't want to call it a mystery because this is not really a mystery but more of a chronicle but I'll get to that later. I will examine plot, character and polish.
SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING!
SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING!
I like to call this a "dramatized and abridged version" of history. There aren't any dates (I had to go to Wikipedia for those). The characters and their relationships to each other are paramount here. Instead of a paragraph about, for instance, Chabrias being recalled to Athens from Egypt before Persia invades the later and the reasons why, there is instead an emotional and confrontational dialogue between Chabrias and Pharaoh Nectanebo I. If that conversation ever really took place, I don't know. I assume that Miss. Slack has done enough research to create a suitable facsimile because I doubt there was someone in that meeting recording every word. It's kind of like Thucydides. He admits to having created from whole cloth conversations between people based on the events that happened before and after the conversations that he knew for a fact took place but wasn't privy to.
The historical research aspect, as a whole, looks good. It is interesting enough that I did my own casual research and she hit every point. I found it fascinating that there was a rumor/legend etc. that Alexander the Great's birth father was Nectanebo II by way of his mother, Olympia, having sex with him after marrying Philip II of Macedonia. When I first read that in the book I was like "no way! She must have made that up" but then I looked it up and it was there. This is why I call it a historical fiction but not a mystery.
There isn't any mystery going on other than court intrigue and the reader is privy to all of that via Third Person Omniscient. Likewise, there is no investigation into Thermafi's murder. In a paraphrase of the words of one of the characters, "they just buried her and moved on". This murder happens in the first chapter but it is a disguised In-Media-Res sort of thing because the next chapter goes back decades. I was really confused when Thermafi appears later in the story. I thought she was the apprentice that was introduced at the same time. Furthermore, the murder itself takes place over halfway through the story and then the plot thread is dismissed except for one (at the time) minor character wanting revenge on someone specific. I forgot about her until the epilogue. There is no mystery.
The ending is a mixed bag in my personal opinion. There is closure on all points and some characters got surprisingly happy endings, all things considered. Although I have to wonder why it stopped where it did. After all, if this book holds that Alexander the Great is the illegitimate son of Nectanebo II, doesn't that still count as part of the same dynasty? After all, there was an "oracle" proclaiming him to be the "Son of Amun" and all that. The final ending is the second thing that I take issue with.
All of a sudden, the book breaks the Fourth the Fourth Wall. By itself this is weird and it gets more so. It talks about how, because the reader has read the book and discovered why this original character was killed, the gods of Egypt are free to leave the world so humans won't bother them anymore. This is a weird thing because the gods had been treated as fictions maintained by the priesthoods since the beginning of the story.
This is an ensemble cast. While the major focus is on the three men forming the 30th Egyptian Dynasty, it goes all over the place. There are chapters for the high priest of Ptah, for Athenian generals, for the many children of Artaxerxes I, his satraps and his various minions. To Miss.Slack's credit, I found them all to be sufficiently developed to avoid being plot props. Sometimes this can be done quickly and with minimum fuss, such as Mentor of Rhodes, and the character can go on to be useful. Other times there is a more extensive background thing or side story. In either case, it has the effect of making the story longer and expanding the scope.
In this dramatization, I have to question the intelligence of many people involved in these schemes. For instance, Artaxerxes I doesn't appear all that clever from this account. Although the "fake family" thing would be hard to discount, who would agree to a plan that says "support a rebellion against your enemy by emptying your treasury and sending it in one fleet, with a Persian messenger onboard it, to the rebellion directly, and then send your armies to another location and wait for the rebels to join up with you"? Even more so when the chief benefit for you is "once the rebels win, the country will stop invading you". I can only assume that the real account was either simplified for brevity or that this is a real life example of an Idiot Ball.
Thermafi, being absent from the historical record (i.e. an original character of the author), is exempt from most of this. She is portrayed as the wisest and most sensible of the characters to the point where she holds her own in a debate with Plato and is appointed to a brand new position "Overseer of the Throne". She claims that she doesn't have any magical spells or powers and yet she does stuff resembling a Jedi Mind Trick on occasion.
I like her character. She is not annoying like the OCs of fan fiction can be and she has flaws of her own (such as the dislike of any and all violence even there are attempts on your life and invasions of your country). Yet, the men of the 30th dynasty rely on her to such a degree that it makes me wonder if someone like her were truly present at this time. This story would be remarkably different if she weren't. Maybe she was Unpersoned like Akhenaten.
I didn't much in the way of spelling or grammar errors. Maybe a handful, but that's all.
It is the frequent and unannounced time skips that bother me. There is nothing in the first or second chapter that IDs the first chapter as In Media Res. I think it's an attempt at Once More With Clarity. Every chapter after that seems to skip forward in time. Nectanebo I's kids grow up between chapters; one chapter he's leaving his son with Theramfi as a legal guardian sort of thing and then a couple chapters later, the kid is a grown man with his own kid. There's another chapter where this one guy is putting a rebellion into motion and the start of the very next chapter says, in an offhanded way, that the rebellion has already been crushed. Not even the aftermath is shown, just talked about. It's like the story gets stretched out the further it goes. Alexander the Great only has one major scene. The rest is summary.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Hidden from the Face of Humans" a C
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Brian Wilkerson is a independent novelist, freelance book reviewer, and writing advice blogger. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).