I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Crown Publishing on October 14th, 2014
An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.
Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt's throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt's second female pharaoh.
Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power
Ancient Egypt is fascinating. The history is fundamentally unique, and so detailed and complex that much of one of the world’s greatest civilization still eludes historians and Egyptologists today. This causes problems, especially in pop culture. Outrageous anomalies like Cleopatra and the bloodthirsty Ptolemic kings become stereotype, and the coolest elements of Egyptian culture are unknown. With The Woman Who Would Be King, Kara Cooney is attempting to change some of that. This book looks at the life of Hatshepsut, and explores what it truly took to be a female King in the Ancient world – and a successful one!
The Woman Who Would Be King follows Hatshepsut from the moment of her birth to King Thutmose and his Great Wife, to occupying the priestess role of Wife of Amen (the god), to Queenship while married to her brother, Thutmose II, through her inability to conceive a male child, to the assumption of Regency for her infant nephew Thutmose III, to the ultimate assumption of Kingship above the younger ruler. Cooney explores these formative moments of Hatshepsut’s life through speculative description, suggesting what she might have been thinking, proposing her motivation, and outlining strategy that brought this female acceptably into the most male role of the world.
Cooney’s work had many strengths, the foremost being that she was able to convey aspects of Egyptian life and their value system clearly and easily, especially when they are so different to traditional European or Christian values that shape most of Western Society. She was also able to expertly discuss a woman’s role, women’s power and navigating female sexuality through power (beyond using sex as power), without an overly feminist perspective. I find this refreshing, as it did not over dominate. She also did not leave her readers wondering at the legacy and consequences of Hatshepsut’s successful kingship, and what it meant for future ruling women, and for Thutmose III when he was able to fully occupy his throne.
The work was not without fault, however. This book suffered from repetition and areas of uneven focus – more time was dedicated to Hatshepsut’s role Great Wife to the god Amen than was to her actual kingship, and over 100 pages of this book was concerned with what happened after her death. Perhaps this is where the evidence and source material are more fruitful, but I would have enjoyed more exploration of her ‘court’ structure, or her interactions internationally. We know she succeeded as king, but more of the how once she actually had the throne would be great.
The last complaint I have is going to make me sound amusingly un-academic, but there was a lack of visual reference – no pictures! Normally this would not be a complaint, but when you’re discussing how a rule portrayed themselves in a unique way in art, statue and architecture, it would be better exemplified if those images were provided. It is one thing to visualize, another to be sure.