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 Howard Books on September 9th, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
Her name is legend. Her story, the epic of nations. The Queen of Sheba. A powerful new novel of love, power, and the questions at the heart of existence by the author of the award-winning “brilliant” (Library Journal) and “masterful” (Publishers Weekly) Iscariot.
There is the story you know: A foreign queen, journeying north with a caravan of riches to pay tribute to a king favored by the One God. The tale of a queen conquered by a king and god both before returning to her own land laden with gifts.
That is the tale you were meant to believe.
Which means most of it is a lie.
The truth is far more than even the storytellers could conjure. The riches more priceless. The secrets more corrosive. The love and betrayal more passionate and devastating.
Across the Red Sea, the pillars of the great oval temple once bore my name: Bilqis, Daughter of the Moon. Here, to the west, the porticoes knew another: Makeda, Woman of Fire. To the Israelites, I was queen of the spice lands, which they called Sheba.
In the tenth century BC, the new Queen of Sheba has inherited her father’s throne and all its riches at great personal cost. Her realm stretches west across the Red Sea into land wealthy in gold, frankincense, and spices. But now new alliances to the North threaten the trade routes that are the lifeblood of her nation. Solomon, the brash new king of Israel famous for his wealth and wisdom, will not be denied the tribute of the world—or of Sheba’s queen. With tensions ready to erupt within her own borders and the future of her nation at stake, the one woman who can match wits with Solomon undertakes the journey of a lifetime in a daring bid to test and win the king. But neither ruler has anticipated the clash of agendas, gods, and passion that threatens to ignite—and ruin—them both. An explosive retelling of the legendary king and queen and the nations that shaped history.
The legendary Queen of Sheba is intensely fascinating, but perplexing in the total lack of what we can know about her, or if she truly even existed as suggested. Throughout the ages, this legend has taken on many names and been believed to hail from so many places, with no further understanding of the truth.
The Legend of Sheba became particularly popular ‘mythology’ during the Renaissance, when biblical and quar’anic renditions resurfaced to inspire popular storytelling and artistic influence. This why Tosca Lee’s The Legend of Sheba was so appealing to me – the art and culture which I spend my life studying was exceptionally reverent of this figure, and I wanted to know more.
The Legend of Sheba chronicles the life of Bilqis from her early childhood as a princess of Punt, the painful loss of her mother, and the lengthy exile as her father’s new wife assumes control. Once she has come of age, Bilqis is brought back to Punt to fight for and assume her rights to the throne. This new ascension to power has a high price, but Bilquis in majority assumes leadership in stride, and strategizes how to best cement her power, and the wealth of her trade connections. To do so, Bilqis must come to agreement with the new King Solomon of Israel, without surrendering her tenuous power. The repartee between the Queen and Solomon waxes from political posturing to theological debates, and ultimately, an undercurrent of desire and suggestion that cannot be ignored. For this reason, Bilqis sets off on a journey to meet the King, to win not only his assurances, but also his heart.
The first thing that needs to be said about this book is that Tosca Lee is an incredibly talented writer for provoking the sensual experience of the imagination. She is eloquent and flowery, she crafts beautiful imagery and has a gift for poetic word choice. Her literary structure flows beautifully, and she easily appeals to the reader’s major senses. Even if the book had been flat and plotless, it would have been worth reading simply for her artful style.
To be fair, the book wasn’t lacking plot — not entirely, anyway. This is admittedly a slow mover where the finer plot points were more intellectual than action oriented, but I felt as if that was to be expected. Much of the book was dedicated to languorous journeys, introspection and strategy; generally very little time was even spent in her own kingdom, and her return from Israel was entirely omitted, but the development of ideas when action was lacking was still enough to hold my interest.
On a side note, because I have just completed The Woman Who Would Be King, I was pleased with the many allusions the Queen of Sheba makes to Hatshepsut. Certainly, Bilqis identifies with this prolific female ‘king’, and emulates her in similar fashion by declaring herself high priestess and Daughter of Almaqah, but considering the legacy of erasure after Hatshepsut’s death warns Bilqis that she cannot follow the same path. The quote “A woman cannot rule like a man, because she is a woman. A Queen must rule as a woman” provides interesting foreshadowing for Bilqis’s later conduct with Solomon.
For a tale so rooted in Bibilical mythology, I truly appreciated the grounding of this book into such human perspectives, where the emotions bled through, and the figures of legend become flawed and fallible. It was a fascinating read, and I may be inclined to pick up more of Tosca Lee’s work.