Friday, June 5, 2015

Mara, Daughter of the Nile

When I first read the back of this book, I thought it sounded like historical fiction at its coolest. Now, at the end, I'm sure of it. It's hard for me to review, because some of the moral implications I don't know what to do with. But it's an epic story, and here's the good of it:

The Book
From Goodreads: Mara is a proud and beautiful slave girl who yearns for freedom. In order to gain it, she finds herself playing the dangerous role of double spy for two arch enemies - each of whom supports a contender for the throne of Egypt.

Against her will, Mara finds herself falling in love with one of her masters, the noble Sheftu, and she starts to believe in his plans of restoring Thutmose III to the throne. But just when Mara is ready to offer Sheftu her help and her heart, her duplicity is discovered, and a battle ensues in which both Mara's life and the fate of Egypt are at stake.

(Is that not cool?)
My Thoughts 
Mara is one of those books that is pure fun to read. All the time you're reading, you're thinking "this is a good story--a lifetime story--this is why I love books". It's spy fiction at its tightest, with tiny clues and grand stakes that all weave together into the delicious combination of suspense that I like to experience. This book has everything from midnight meets to tomb robbing (and breaking the royal seals on the tombs was no joke for an Egyptian).

The characterization gives food for thought, and is far from a rainbow of happiness, but neither is it one of those gut-wrenching tales that leaves you exhausted and glassy-eyed. When I finished, I had the happy, heart-pumping adrenaline of a story well told that didn't try to knock my emotions out of whack at the same time. I was able to do what I love best: read the story without that hangover angst the next day.

The Egyptian culture makes for a unique and beautiful setting. I loved the way McGraw combined the little details of clothing, eye paint, gods, food, and nobility. What made her setting even richer was bringing in a Syrian with completely different culture and value system, and contrasting Mara's love for Egypt with the Syrian Inanni's wariness and disgust. Mara considers Inanni's many shawls frumpy and shapeless, while Inanni considers Mara's sheath-like dress immodest and thin. That's a brilliant way to highlight culture details. The setting alone made me happy. In the midst of my love for countless English/Irish/Scottish tales, having something so gripping set in a very different country like Egypt brought new zest and enchantment to the tale.

In reading K.M. Weiland's Structuring Your Novel over the weekend, I constantly remembered Mara, and was pleased by how classy the author's plotting was. From a reading perspective it's a joy, from a writer's perspective it's an example worth emulating. It never dragged, but neither was the action cheesy. McGraw never went over the top and never undersold herself. It hit all the correct crisis points naturally, and crescendoed up to a whammer of a climax that delivered the 100% punch I wanted. McGraw got away with using four or five POVs, but none of them were confusing. Every writer who has a book with any kind of drama in it should read Mara.  I would put it in a writing class, or even a literature program for the quality of it.
Lotus flowers also featured in the story. 
As far as the side I'm still thinking about, Mara is a story set completely within a pagan culture. After being used to something like Haggard, which contains at least some mention of Christianity, it left me wondering how to review it when there was nothing to gain a foothold on from my worldview. Mara contains a lot of lying, which I understood in the context of a spy novel. You can't really have a story about a double spy without it. But still, even when it's necessary, I like to think through it.

Last week we learned about an Israeli principle called Pikuach Nefesh. One sect of the Pharisees in the Middle East held that loving God and loving their neighbor were the highest commandments. If you had to lie or break the Sabbath to love your neighbor, then the loving came first. In many ways, Mara makes me think of that, as she makes choices to sacrifice for the spies and king she loves. Though I don't think the author had that principle in mind, and I myself have reservations about it, understanding Pikuach Nefesh helped me process this book as a Christian reader. This is how a poor, non-Christian Egyptian girl would realistically act, and I can respect the consistency of her viewpoint without embracing all of her moral choices.

In spite of the deceit factor, there are certain things the characters will not do, come torture or whipping or death. They act by their moral code, and they respect it, even if they swear by all the gods of Egypt in the process. Two things that shine clear are patriotism and deep sacrifice for the well-being of Egypt.

For readers who like to look out for romance, Mara contains a significant amount. It was a full-blooded, mature romance, not a shallow and saccharine one. But even though it didn't trouble me, some readers may not care for it. :)

In looking at the Amazon reviews, it has over 200 five star reviews and very few negative ones. Most times I view five stars with a wary eye, but this time I am glad. It shows that a lot of people recognize its worth. It may not be a Christian story, but I think it's a story well told, valuable in looking through the eyes of a different culture and belief system. Good quality deserves accolades, and Mara, Daughter of the Nile, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, is a joy of an adventure tale.

8 comments:

  1. :D Ah how I loved this book when I was 13. I do consider it a bit of a guilty pleasure though, of the same kind as Mary Stewart. But I'm so glad you loved it!

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    1. I have never read Mary Stewart, but I consider this a much less guilty pleasure than Grace Richmond! Excellent stuff. :)

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  2. Sounds interesting! It's always refreshing to read a book that's well written. :) One of my favourite books is set in Egypt too, so I might have to check this one out!

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    1. You've intrigued me! What is your favorite book? :)

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  3. Glad you enjoyed this book! Every time I read an Eloise Jarvis McGraw book, I come away feeling I've just read something very well-written. She's not showy, but a master of her craft.

    I like many of her books, but I'm going to take the chance to put in a pitch for one of my favorites, Master Cornhill, which seems to be perpetually eclipsed by the glory of Mara and The Moorchild. The main character is a boy, living in London in 1666 (not the year to be in London). It's less fast-paced than Mara, but the characters are priceless and twist my heart up in knots. It also has no romance and many fewer lies. ;) I hope someday you get a chance to read it.

    Another great review...thank you!

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    1. I remember you encouraging me a couple of years ago to read Eloise Jarvis McGraw, and Master Cornhill was one of your recommendations. I think I would enjoy fewer lies, as I wouldn't make a steady habit of Mara. :) But still, I'm looking forward to reading Mara again, and Master Cornhill as well. :)

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  4. Nice review! This is one of my favorite books. Eloise Jarvis McGraw is an amazing writer! You should read her other books if you haven't already. :)

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    1. Hooray! You've read her too! Wonderful to have you stop by. :)

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