“A River in the Sky”

This is definitely not a book review.

First the disclaimer. This blog post will almost certainly not be a completely unbiased examination of the book, A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters. Simply put, the author is my personal idol, a woman whose life and work has not only touched me, but in fact changed and guided my life in very profound ways. Therefore, I do not claim to present an unbiased opinion on the book, only that it is my own opinion. The book itself, for those who do not yet know is the latest book in Elizabeth Peters’ wonderful Amelia Peabody Series. Elizabeth Peters is one of the pseudonyms of Barbara Mertz, Egyptologist and Author. This particular volume deviates somewhat from the rest of the series, in that it is set in Palestine (primarily Jerusalem and Samaria) rather than Egypt, and also interestingly, this appears to be only the second time Ms. Peters has written a book out of order*. This one is set during the 1910 excavation season (currently, the latest date of the Peabody books is set during the discovery of Tut’s tomb in 1922) which backtracks it back seven books. At this point, I must put up the obligatory spoiler warning. If you have not read the book and/or do not wish to read spoilers, do NOT read below the cut!

A River in the Sky is set before Ramses and Nefret finally admit their love for each-other and marry, and Ramses has gone off on his own to work on a dig in Samaria with the archaeologist Reisner, one of the many historical characters sprinkled throughout the series. Amelia and her husband Emerson are approached by an adventurer, Morley, bent on digging up the Mount of the Rock in Jerusalem in search of the Temple’s treasure, and the British War Office, bent on stopping Morley. Emerson, naturally, takes the side of the War Office and the family follows along to Jerusalem to stop Morley from carrying out his inept and politically dangerous excavation. Over the course of the rest of the book Ramses gets himself (and later David) kidnapped by German spies, escapes, and are nearly killed again by those same spies. Amelia has a run in with the spies, is rescued by Ramses, and eventually the plot (which it is revealed was intended to bring the people of Palestine around to the Kaizer’s side) is foiled.

As always, the characters are energetic, amusing, and distinctive. However, there are a number of differences between this book and the others, the location being only the most minor. The story itself is much less a murder-mystery and more of a spy-adventure story, which is a slightly jarring genre-switch for Amelia. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but the characters themselves seemed a bit…off. ¬†Amelia herself was somewhat less clever than usual. She was not several steps ahead of everyone, in fact she lagged distinctly behind everyone else (especially Ramses) except in her correct identification of the British War Office’s agent, whose messages to the family had gone astray. Ramses himself is rather less adept at moving unobtrusively through the countryside, though of course at this period in time he hasn’t yet had all his experience from serving as a British spy to help him along. Nefret was particularly disappointing, since she exists almost entirely as window-dressing in this book, rather than an active player as she normally is.

Aside from assorted minor gripes about the characters and plot, my newly sharpened “internal editor” was distinctly noisy about certain passages, noting awkwardly worded or pedantic passages and slow scenes. Mostly I ignored these in favor of enjoying the story, but I did note that the portions known as Manuscript H, which is the third person account from Ramses (and occasionally Nefret’s or David’s) viewpoint occasioned far less criticism from my “internal editor” than the first-person accounts from Amelia’s point of view. This is particularly interesting to me because in all previous books which Manuscript H appeared** I have been somewhat impatient with these side deviations from the view-point of my favorite character, Amelia herself. There was also far more of a disconnect between Amelia’s story and Manuscript H this time, mainly because Ramses spends the majority of the book out of contact with his family. In any case, I found Manuscript H incredibly exciting to read, enjoying Ramses escapades and light banter with David.

Regardless of my nit-picking, I did enjoy reading all parts of the book. More importantly, in my mind, I felt the urge to read (or rather re-read) more of the Amelia Peabody series. There are a number of books in the middle and earlier portion of the series which I have not read in years, and which I mean to re-read as soon as I can get my hands on them. Any time an author’s work compels me to read more of their work, I count it as a success on their part. A River in the Sky is characteristically fast-paced, fun and full of colorful detail about the time and place. Some part of my problems almost certainly stems from my own resistance to change, and the fact that Amelia was not in her (and my) favorite place bothered me more than I had thought it would. My love for Elizabeth Peters’ books is undiminished, but I do hope she’ll set the next one in Egypt again.

*The other book written out of order was Guardian on the Horizon published in 2004 and focusing on the 1907-1908 excavation season. It was published after the book detailing the 1919-1920 season.

** They appeared in either the Hippopotamus Pool or Seeing a Large Cat. I believe it was the latter, but I’m certain it was not before the former.

Thought for the Week: “Candor is not a conspicuous characteristic of criminals.” Amelia Peabody

Currently Reading: Modern Arabic Short Stories: A Bilingual Reader edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman


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