The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

Title: The Woman Who Would Be King
Author: Kara Cooney
Genre: Non-fiction, Biography, History
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 3 out of 5

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When Hatshepsut’s husband, King Thutmose II died early in his reign, they had not produced a male heir to continue the dynasty. Thutmose did, however, have a son by a lesser wife and at the age of two, it was this little boy who came to the throne as Thutmose III. Too young to reign in his own right, Hatshepsut, as wife of the previous King and daughter of the one before that (Thutmose I) became Regent, ruling in his name.

In ancient Egypt, a wife or mother of a young king acting as Regent until he reached a suitable age to rule wasn’t unknown or that unusual. What made Hatshepsut different though was that, rather than relinquishing power when Thutmose III came of age, she gradually built up her own power and position, eventually being crowned co-king.  Not only that, she ruled successfully and peacefully for 22 years, unheard of for a woman ruler not only in Egypt but anywhere else in the world at the time.

I am always fascinated by women who step outside their traditionally assigned roles and Hatshepsut sounded like just the type of woman I want to know more about.  It is why I requested a review copy of the book.  Yet, by the end of the book, I still don’t feel I truly understand her or how she achieved what she did. This is because the book is too full of broad statements, assumptions and contradictions.  (For example, it says that Hatshepsut cloaked her power plays in a veil of piety but then repeatedly states that she was pious and may have genuinely felt she was carrying out the will of the gods.)

To be fair, Kara Cooney states in her introduction that she has engaged in “conjecture and speculation” in order to “resurrect and reanimate Hatshepsut’s intentions, ambitions, and disappointments”.  Her aim is to understand the woman behind the facts. Her assumptions may be right, but without the background facts, I just don’t know what to believe or trust any of the information fully.  Which is a shame, because there is lots in the book I found interesting and Cooney really seems to know her subject.

Not only does she seem to know her subject, she seems to really like and admire her. Which brings me to my second problem with the book. It doesn’t seem very objective. Hatshepsut never seems to do anything wrong. Every decision she makes, every move, is at the perfect time and in the perfect way. Cooney raises criticisms of Hatshepsut from other Egyptologists only to dismiss them.

The last problem I had with the book is the pace. To me, it felt rushed. For example, in one paragraph, Hatshepsut is pregnant, the next her heart is falling because she gives birth to a girl.  I didn’t feel like I was taking a breath through the whole thing and by the end I felt slightly exhausted, even though it comes in at just over 200 pages.

That said, it isn’t all bad (even though I feel like I’ve been moaning about it). Kara Cooney does have a way with words and her descriptions of Egyptian ceremonies especially did evoke a sense of being there, drawing me in. It is her way of painting a picture that saves the book from being a total miss with me. Cooney states in her acknowledgements that she wanted to write a readable biography and I think she has achieved that. It just wasn’t what I expected (or wanted to be honest).

Emma x

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