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Kara Cooney – The Woman Who Would Be King

July 22, 2015

LibraryThing Early Reviewers22. The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney (2014)

Length: 296 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Started: 27 Jan 2015
Finished: 14 May 2015

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.
Why do I have it? I don’t know enough about Egyptian History as I’d like to, so this sounded interesting.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 03 November 2014.

Women in power?
Hatshepsut ruled two thousand
years before Queen Bess.

Summary: Hatshepsut was a rarity in the ancient world – and even in the modern one – a woman who held power of the greatest empire of her day. Born as daughter to Thutmose I, she served in the ceremonial position of Gods’ Wife, before being married to her younger half-brother Thutmose II. When Hatshepsut failed to produce an heir, and Thutmose II died young, Hatshepsut managed to become regent with the infant king Thutmose III, outmaneuvering his mother for political power, and eventually ascending to be pharaoh in her own right, ruling for 14 years, and overseeing one of Egypt’s busiest periods of building. But shortly after her death, her monuments began to be defaced or destroyed, and her legacy was largely forgotten.

Review: This was an interesting look at some ancient history, and I certainly learned a lot, but I didn’t always find it the easiest read. Hatshepsut was a fascinating figure, and I like Cooney’s idea to use her to examine the perception of and reaction to women in political power, although this was used more as an introduction to the biography than analyzed in any critical detail. Cooney does a nice job of explaining the relevant social, political, and religious aspects of life in ancient Egypt, something which I – as a relative neophyte to Egyptian history – greatly appreciated as a means of putting Hatshepsut’s life into context. The writing was generally smooth, although there were places where it was harder for me to get through – I felt like it occasionally lost track of the main narrative thread of Hatshepsut’s life and struggles, and thus lost some of its driving force and became somewhat dense.

I also thought that Cooney did a good job of differentiating fact from interpretation in her reconstruction of Hatshepsut’s life, something that is not always the case in histories based on limited or fragmentary sources. (She occasionally ventured a little far into the “may have” form of sentence construction when discussing aspects of Hatshepsut’s life for which there is no direct evidence, but that’s preferable to treating interpolation and interpretation as truth.) One issue that did bother me is that the evidence that Cooney did have was rarely “on display”, as it were. Early in the book she discusses how most of Hatshepsut’s monuments were destroyed, but I was never entirely clear on a) how archaeologists could tell they were Hatshepsut’s monuments in the first place, and b) what evidence remains that wasn’t destroyed. Not that I need to see every statue or read every hieroglyph, but I would have appreciated some more direct discussion of where this information was coming from. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I found this book interesting but not exactly compelling. Those with a strong interest in ancient Egypt would certainly find this one worth a try, although those with a more casual interest may do better to stick to historical fiction set in ancient Egypt (a la Michelle Moran).

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books, That’s What She Read, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Hatshepsut was the first woman to exercise long-term rule over Egypt as a king.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 24: “The Egyptians created birthing houses specially decorated with apotropaic images and iconography that were ostensibly set apart from the main living quarters.” – preventing or intended to prevent evil.
  • p. 63: “She is shown dressed as a traditional queen, wearing an archaic skin-tight linen dress that had been popular a thousand years before and a vulture headdress (which for all we know was an actual taxidermied vulture) with richly feathered wings that spread about her head like the lappets of a wig.” – A decorative flap or loose fold on a garment or headdress.
  • p. 67: “But Senenmut was alo openly displaying something else to other Egyptian elites through these statues: that only he had the right to touch this royal child, that only he belonged to this inner sphere of power and they did not, that only he had access to expensive granodiorite stones from the royal quarry and to the gilding that once adorned the statues.” – A coarse-grained igneous rock consisting primarily of quartz, plagioclase feldspar, and potassium feldspar, and also containing biotite, hornblende, or pyroxene.
  • p. 245: “Amazingly, the inscription on an ostracon in the Ambras Collection in Vienna matches the broken text on the statue, allowing a better understanding of the piece.” – An inscribed potsherd.
  • p. 246: “Some historians believe that Amenmose was actually one of Thutmose I’s sons from a first marriage, because by the fourth year of his father’s reign Amenmose had already been named as a general in the army on a broken naos shrine that documents his hunting activities on the Giza plateau – unlikely activities for a three-year-old child (now in the Louvre, accession no. E 8074).” – the inner room of a classical temple, esp the room housing the statue of a deity.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 23, 2015 12:23 pm

    I know what you are saying. There was so much to love about this book and Hatshepsut’s story but there were a few too many gaps and conjecture that didn’t tie to any evidence. After a while, it really started to bother me. However, I did enjoy reading and learning more about her. One can never get tired of more historical evidence that women in power have always been a threat to the patriarchy!

    • August 9, 2015 11:12 am

      Very true! My knowledge of Egyptian history is so spotty that I think even with the gaps and conjectures, this helped!

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