Andre Norton Goes Historical in Shadow Hawk

I know I read this book. I remember the title. That’s all I remember. But I did read it, devouring it along with every other historical novel in my small-town public library.

Reading it now, as an adult with my own bibliography of Egyptian historicals (including one on the Hyksos), was an interesting experience. I thought about how to approach it before I started, and decided to take the path of lesser stress: to read it as another Norton adventure story, and not worry excessively about historical accuracy or lack thereof. For one thing, our knowledge of ancient Egypt has expanded tremendously in the past sixty years, and the ways in which we interpret the data have changed at least as much.

There’s no doubt that Norton researched this novel extensively. It’s packed with the kind of details both large and small that only a dedicated researcher could have found. It’s much more intricately plotted than usual for a Norton novel, with complex political machinations and in-depth depictions of battles and military strategy.

And you know, she wrote a pretty decent book. Enough so that I found myself wishing she’d written more historicals. I wasn’t expecting subtle characterization or sensitive explorations of daily life in the period—those weren’t Norton’s strengths—but the book is full of the kinds of things she was excellent at: brisk pacing, exciting adventures, strange and unusual settings.

I actually quite enjoyed it. I was swept along with Rahotep, the classic Norton protagonist: his mother dead, his father distant both emotionally and physically, his half-brother not just estranged but outright hostile. But he has a band of friends and battle brothers, the Nubian archers under his command, led by his best friend Kheti. And he has allies and protectors, and best of all to my mind, he acquires an animal companion, the black leopard Bis.

Rahotep lives in Nubia during the Hyksos occupation of Egypt. His father is a sort of shadow Pharaoh, and he is the “Shadow Hawk,” the son of the female heir of the conquered name of the Hawk in Egypt. He’s been semi-exiled to a remote outpost to keep him from challenging his brother for the position of heir, but he doesn’t really care about that.

Everybody hates the Hyksos, but Rahotep is preoccupied with fighting the savage Kush—until he’s called back home, very belatedly, by the news of his father’s death. He falls straight into a trap, and is captured and imprisoned by the evil priests of Anubis. Luckily his Nubians are both smart and independent-minded, and they find the secret passages in the old and rundown temple, rescue Rahotep, and help him escape.

The Pharaoh in Thebes, meanwhile, has sent an envoy to Rahotep’s father, commanding him to send troops and ships from three specific jurisdictions. All of these are long gone, and the new ruler is evilly pleased to refuse the summons. It’s too specific, he sneers. He’s not obligated to send anybody else.

But Rahotep has to get out of there or die, and he offers himself and his tiny company. It may seem like a pathetic response, but Nubian longbowmen and wilderness scouts are far more valuable than they look.

Thebes is a worn and half-ruinous shadow of its old self, and it’s riddled with conspiracies. But the Pharaoh is determined to rebel against the Hyksos, and both of his sons, the crown prince Kamose and the military commander Ahmose, support him fully.

Once again Rahotep becomes a pawn of a temple conspiracy that results in the death of the ruler, and once again he proves his true allegiance. This time he’s badly beaten and nearly killed—but that turns to his advantage. Kamose, the new Pharaoh, has every intention of continuing his father’s campaign against the Hyksos. They start with the first major Hyksos fortress-city, and Rahotep is instrumental in taking it: thanks to his scars, he’s able to pass as a slave, and he infiltrates the city, collects a handful of allies, and helps to destroy it from the inside out, ably assisted by Kheti and the Nubians, his pet leopard, and a Viking named Icar.

Yes, I know. There would be no Vikings for at least two millennia. Icar is supposed to be some kind of Minoan-Greek sea captain. He’s big, blond, white-skinned, and all about the warrior ethic. He rapidly becomes one of Rahotep’s best friends, and he plays a major role in taking the city.

As I said, I decided not to get into the issue of historical accuracy, mostly to keep the top of my head from blowing off. I read this in the same way I watch those lavish Fifties costume dramas: disbelief suspended as willingly as I could manage, just sitting back to enjoy the show. All those people clapping for slaves are pure Hollywood, as are most of the slaves themselves. The visual sense makes me think of Mr. DeMille and his many colleagues and imitators, and the underlying assumptions are more Middle America than pre-Middle Kingdom.

The most problematical of these assumptions for me, in 2019, are the ones having to do with race and ethnicity. Skin-color racism is a very American phenomenon, and it manifests in the depiction of the “Kush” as jet-black jungle barbarians who speak no civilized language. Not only is this historically inaccurate, it’s straightforwardly racist. Excusing the equally dark Nubians because they’re allies (and suitably subordinate to the lighter-skinned commander) is in no way better, and adding a white savior in the form of Icar and his red-bearded associate/subordinate just compounds the problem.

As for the Hyksos, they’re completely dehumanized. They’re ugly, they have thick beards, they take and abuse slaves, they worship a horrible snake god. Norton makes no attempt to portray any of them as individual human beings. Even Tolkien did better with his Orcs, who might have been awful but they had lives and thoughts of their own.

Some of this is explainable by the fact that our viewpoint character doesn’t want or care to see them as people. The Egyptians certainly had no interest in seeing their point of view—just in getting them out and expunging them from the memory of the Two Lands. But Norton, as a writer of alien cultures and a devoted advocate of diversity in fiction, could have done better.

One thing she did do, which really stands out in the context of the all-male universes of her novels in the Fifties (but in its way presages what she was about to do with the Witch World novels), was depict some of the power that women held in ancient Egypt. Not to the degree that we now understand to have been the case, but for the time and with the sources she would have had to work with, she did a pretty good job.

Rahotep’s mother Tuya is dead, as mothers in Norton novels usually end up being, but we get a sense of her personality, and it’s clear she was an important political figure. In Egypt, the Pharaoh’s mother and his Great Royal Wife play in active role in ruling the kingdom, and they both enlist Rahotep in their plans and protect him against his and his superiors’ enemies. And then there’s my favorite of the women in the book, the reboubtable Nebet, who rules the underworld of the Hyksos city. She is truly morally ambiguous, but she proves to be a strong ally. The Egyptians could not have won their victory without her.

All in all, for what it is and for the time in which it was written, Shadow Hawk is surprisingly good. It has excellent intentions and it does its best to do justice to the material. I wouldn’t have minded at all if she had written more like this.

Next up, because I happened across it during an ebook search and because I’m always up for some time travel, is Operation Time Search.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café and Canelo Press. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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