- Virginia Johnson
Her wit is as dry as a whisper in a mummy’s tomb when she describes the life of a citizen of old Egypt from the squalling dawn of his existence to his final preparation for the afterlife. But for all her panache, in penning Red Land, Black Land Barbara Mertz has created no gripping historical romantic suspense novel—although she’s written many of those, too.
You may know this author better as Elizabeth Peters, she of the Amelia Peabody mystery series, or by her other nom de plume--Barbara Michaels. Yet Barbara Mertz is her real name, and it’s under that identity that she earned a doctorate in Egyptology from Chicago’s famed Oriental Institute some decades ago.
In several of her best-selling novels, Barbara Mertz featured older, wiser characters who enlightened the lovely if somewhat feather-headed ingénues’ views of the world with dollops of history and politics. She managed to weave these facts with her fictions so charmingly that for many readers they are the selling points of her fiction. Red Land, Black Land, originally published in 1978 and now in a revised edition, takes that pleasant method of discourse and extends it to cover an extensive and favorite subject—ancient Egypt.
Whilst revealing much in the way of Science (!)--both ancient views and modern applications--she also chooses to include numerous personal musings and opinion which keeps the subject lively. It is impossible to completely cover the many centuries of ancient Egypt’s past and its cultural points, but she manages to give a well-delineated sketch of lives as experienced by those ancients. She touches on daily routines, mystical rituals, soldiers’ sorrows, and stirring stories (true or not), but she also gives plenty of unusually detailed explication of the standard more Egyptian subjects: mummification, hieroglyphics, pyramid building, as well as gods and goddesses.
All this she conveys in plain if clever English so as not to obscure her larger meaning or lose her readers. Here is an excellent guide for those who wish an overview of Egyptology that is a step up from most books written for a general audience but is not so minute in its discourse as to lose the sense of the human story.