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Pharaoh Fantastic
editors: Martin H. Greenberg and Brittiany A. Koren
DAW paperback $6.95

review by Amy Harlib

Veteran anthologist Martin H. Greenberg teams up with newcomer Brittiany A. Koren under the auspices of DAW Books to produce Pharaoh Fantastic, another mass-market paperback volume of themed fantasy stories by diverse hands to join their plethora of similar publications. Normally I pass these things by, preferring the length and complexity of novels to shorter works, but I couldn't resist this gathering because of my passion for its subject matter, which the publisher and editor astutely surmised would be of vast appeal to many other readers besides this reviewer.

Pharaoh Fantastic, tapping into the zeitgeist that makes pop cultural productions like the The Mummy movies, Stargate and specific TV documentaries and museum exhibits such successes, features 13 tales scribed by established professional genre writers although a couple of names are more well-known for their mysteries than for their fantastic output. The yarns, with one or two glaring clunkers, all are exceedingly well written, show greater of lesser degrees of research efforts by the authors and manage to capture the flavour and for the most part convey the uniquely distinct African cultural ambiance of the specific time period in which an individual piece is set though the tales are not arranged in chronological order. Background milieus cover nearly the entire range of Dynastic Egypt (with the Middle Kingdom strangely neglected), and even stray into the more modern, multi-ethnic intermingling eras of the 19th and 20th centuries into the near future.

The anthology begins with Brittiany A. Koren's pithy introduction explaining how the pharaohs of Egypt were worshipped as god-kings, their monuments enduring, as intended, for thousands of years with the more famous of their builders, Ramses and Tutankhamon and Thutmoses, etc, known around the world. Yet, for all their greatness and glorification, these rulers were still mortal human beings with all the flaws and virtues inherent in people everywhere. Thus, the premise of these stories, to portray "a deeper, richer side to the pharaohs, bringing to life their families, close friends, servants and enemies" - a goal that the contents of this book amply succeeds in fulfilling.

Summarising in order according to the table of contents, Pharaoh Fantastic starts off excellently and logically with Succession by Tanya Huff, set right after the unification of Egypt when the First Dynasty pharaoh Menes (whose more familiar Greek name the author chose to use over the more authentic Narmer) finds his fragile, newly won power threatened by the dark magic-enhanced ambitions of his vizier with the clever queen finding some surprising allies to aid her in defending her husband. Jody Lynne Nye's The Voice Of Authority wittily shows how 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramses IV, ascending the throne suddenly after his father's unexpected death, discovers the relationship between the king and the gods to be much closer and more involved in day to day life and responsibilities towards the people and the country than he ever imagined.

Beneath The Eye Of The Hawk by Jane Lindskold chronicles the misadventures of 19th century Victorian era British and German colonials seeking the tomb (and its assumed rich contents), of an invented pharaoh, the fabled Neferankhotep - a mission with dubious results involving conflicts with Bedouins and encounters with the obligatory animate mummy - clichés and the racism of the time period handled with enough irony and rueful twists to be barely tolerable and perhaps meant to be a parody of Indiana Jones-type derring-do. A Light In The Desert by Rosemary Edgehill, narrated by the Steward of Akhenaten, uses Biblical-style language to make a far-fetched, pretentious connection between this 18th Dynasty ruler and the origins of Moses.

The very funny and ingenious The Scroll Of Wisdom by Josepha Sherman finds the historically authentic scholar-priest Khamwas, the 4th son of 19th Dynasty pharaoh Ramses II, imaginatively transported through time to modern-day New York City's NYU campus where an attractive, resourceful female graduate student of Egyptology has the smarts to figure out how to help her unusual and fascinating visitor thwart the evil spell that catapulted him to the future and then to assist him in returning home. Sherman manages to make her characters vivid, to deal humorously, believably and suspensefully with the protagonists' mutual cultural shock and to make the magic work cleverly and concisely. Whatever Was Forgotten by Nina Kiriki Hoffman adroitly captures the archaic flavour of the language of the narrator, the soul of 18th Dynasty pharaoh Horemheb, now deceased and entombed with the spirit of his Great Royal Wife. He poignantly records what happens over the course of time when the rituals and ceremonies meant to preserve their essences and afterlife gradually diminish and become neglected. Hoffman gets her historical, mythological and theological details perfect in this brief little gem!

Mickey Zucker Reichart's Let Our People Go concerns a late 21st century team of inventors, one Jewish-American and the other Arab-Egyptian, who use their time machine to journey back to the period of Moses in an attempt to alter history in order to make the relationship between their different peoples more peaceful with mixed, ironic results in a moderately interesting satire of the Biblical Exodus story and modern-day politics.

Late Period (1070 - 767 BC) Tanis, in the Nile Delta and its famous temple of the cat goddess Bast provides the setting for Bill McCay's delightful To See Beyond Darkness in which the pharaoh's favourite feline companion joins forces with the local cats to break the evil spell of a misguided priest who has trapped the power of the Cat Goddess in her statue and called upon much darker entities in a quest for forbidden immortality. Reminiscent of Andre Norton at her best, this story manages to capture a cats-eye-view of Dynastic Egyptian life, rituals and sorcery while staying true to historical detail. Quite the opposite, A Lion Loose Upon The World by Brendan DuBois, I found extremely distasteful. Belonging to the horror genre and set in the modern-day USA region of New England, this yarn portrays a grandmother narrating her to her ankh-wearing, Egypt-enthralled granddaughter, a story about how, in the early 20th century, her deceased older brother met an untimely end in his youth when he and two friends meddled with an archaeological artifact hidden in a box, a relic of the lion-headed goddess of vengeance, Sekhmet. Somehow, these prankster youths set free the spirit of 'something' that had been contained in the object and they subsequently died in horrible, uncanny ways and thereafter, all the terrible ills of the 20th century starting with World War I, started happening. Besides the facile predictability of the plot, this tale takes an entirely negative attitude towards things Egyptian (the granddaughter throws away her ankh in disgust at the very end of the narrative). It ignores Sekhmet's positive attributes as a goddess of healing and curing diseases and plays up tired clich�s about curses on findings from digs. Feh!

Immeasurably better, the fine Games Of Fate by Fiona Patton concerns how Semerkhet, 6th pharaoh of a united Egypt unknowingly enjoys the services of Khepi, a scarab-spirit and minor godling who guards him until a surprise at the very end awakens the monarch's consciousness to vaster planes of existence. By contrast, we get The Spin Wizard by Laura Resnick which, meant to be a parody and intentionally loaded with anachronisms, explains how Ramses II of the 19th Dynasty employed some unusual help to establish his fame and sobriquet "Ramses the Great." I found this bit of fluff unfunny and stupid - the worst piece in the book - a lampoon of contemporary media manipulation that does not work for me at all transported to the time and place that it was.

The charming That God Won't Hunt by Susan Sizemore mixes romance and magic to tell how Princess Ipuit, aided by royal pet hounds, bravely and skilfully saves her betrothed, pharaoh Pepi of the 5th Dynasty, from the wicked enchantments of a usurping close relative functioning as a high official. Finally, to go out with a smile, in the humorous Basted by Alan Dean Foster, Ali, a poor, struggling, modern-day Egyptian tour guide experiences a sudden positive change in fortune when he accidentally awakens the long-dormant spirit of a mummified invented pharaoh Unarhotep whose essence finds it can survive by manifesting in the form a magnificent cheetah. Together, the man and the big cat pair up and prosper in contemporary Hollywood in a sly spoof of the silliness of the entertainment industry.

With the negative exceptions above, Pharaoh Fantastic, without making a fuss over the ethnic origins of Ancient Egyptian culture, matter-of-factly presents its mostly expertly crafted stories portraying the glories and the spiritual richness of this brilliant African civilisation. Readers questing for fantasy thrills combined with fascinating, exciting, mythical and historical backgrounds will find their explorations well rewarded in this anthology. Pharaoh Fantastic rules!
Pharaoh Fantastic

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