When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt: A (Non-Fiction) Review

cover art for When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by Kara CooneyAncient history confirms one thing again and again: It was a man’s world. Throughout the world ancient civilizations created patriarchal societies often with ruthless transitions between dynasties.

There was one exception: Egypt. Throughout the country’s long reign from Dynasty 1 through to the Ptolemaic years that ended Egypt’s independence until the twentieth century, Egypt was unique in its acceptance of female rulers.

There were not many but occurring as often as they did over thousands of years, suggests the practice was longstanding and accepted throughout Egypt. Separated by years, and sometimes even millennia, these queens came to the throne under difference circumstances, with different strategies. The thing that binds them all together, even now, is that their rules all inevitably ended to restore patriarchal balance. When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt (2018) by Kara Cooney examines the reigns of six queens to explore Egypt’s complex attitudes toward female rule and what lessons might be gleaned for modern society.

This book is divided into six chapters that work chronologically through ancient Egypt’s history beginning in Dynasty 1 with Merneith–one of the first Egyptian women to rule as a regent for a relative too young to rule in his own stead. Next Cooney introduces readers to Nefrusobek who ruled as the last of her dynasty when Egypt’s penchant for using incest to consolidate power resulted in a sterile male heir.

Cooney’s previous book, The Woman Who Would Become King, is a more in-depth study of Hatshepsut–the first Egyptian queen to surpass her role as regent and declare herself king in her own right–so it’s no surprise that this chapter is one of the most thoroughly researched and well-informed.

Nefertiti, the queen who watched her husband Akhenaten usher in the monotheistic Amarna period (and bring Egypt out of it after his death) is an interesting figure. Cooney explores how Nefertiti’s position ruling beside Akhenaten allowed her to grasp for more authority. However, its should also be noted that to support her theory of Egypt supporting queens routinely throughout its long history, Cooney supports a very specific school of thought with very little historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti eventually reinvented herself as Smenkhkare, a little-known ruler who followed.

After Smekhnare (or Nefertiti’s) reign Tawosret again saw the end of her dynasty as Egypt became globalized for the first time–a change that would have lasting consequences even a thousand years later when Cleopatra became the last Egyptian to rule Egypt.

Cooney situates each queen well in Egypt’s history and in relation to each other. Even when Cooney delves into what might be conspiracy theories (and theories with little support from new DNA evidence) she also points out the flaws or leaps in logic with a frankness that I appreciate.

Throughout When Women Ruled the World Cooney balances her own conjectures and often working with almost nothing in terms of a historical record to create a nuanced and sometimes even restrained picture. The book is at its weakest when she is trying to use these queens to create a compelling argument for why women should not be sidelined as potential leaders but that is also the thing that ties the entire book together. Includes a map, timeline, and extensive footnotes. Recommended for nonfiction readers and ancient Egypt enthusiasts.

The Shadow Behind the Stars: A Review

The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca HahnChloe is the youngest of the three sisters who spin the world. Her fingers choose the wool, spin the thread, and begin each life. Motherly Serena guides the thread and marks the end. Xinot, the oldest, slices each thread with a snap of her shears.

When a girl appears at their door asking to understand her disastrous fate, the sisters have nothing to say. Serena casts a spell meant to ease the girl’s pain before sending her away. Instead, the spell begins a series of events that will bring about the end of the world in The Shadow Behind the Stars (2015) by Rebecca Hahn.

This sophomore novel from Hahn takes readers on a strange and wondrous course through questions of fate and free will as the narrator and her sisters embark on a journey with the potential to change the very foundation of existence.

Written in second person as Chloe tells her story to us mere mortals, this evocative and descriptive novel is timeless beyond the assumed ancient Greek setting (although all of the characters have names with Greek origins, Hahn avoids delving into retelling any familiar myths instead giving these characters entirely new plots).

A unique voice and mythology-tinged writing give this quiet book some punch and offer a few surprising revelations for the three sisters. Hahn expertly tackles the power of belief and choice in this thoughtful and introspective work. Strong characters and intricate prose help to mitigate a plot that is often slow and narrowly focused (with insights about the human condition that may seem obvious to older readers).

The Shadow Behind the Stars is a unique and often literary tale that will appeal to those interested in mythology, fate, and philosophy.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, The Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Forbidden by Kimberley Griffiths Little, All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry, Soundless by Richelle Mead, Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, And I Darken by Kiersten White

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the July 2015 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen on various sites online as a Starred Review*