Review: The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

The Woman Who Would Be KingKara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King* is what I would call a speculative biography. The subject of the book, Hatshepsut, Egypt’s second female king, is shrouded in mystery for the very simple fact that she lived a very long time ago and thus very little is known about the details of her reign.

Egyptologist Kara Cooney (you may recognize her name, since she produced a Discovery Channel series on Ancient Egypt) attempts to fill in the gaps with The Woman Who Would Be King. Ms. Cooney is careful to note which of her conclusions are speculative, and which are based in archaeological evidence (the book’s Notes section is extensive), though the book necessarily relies heavily on the former.

Hatshepsut, though she ruled for a period of over twenty years, has been overlooked in history compared to, say, Cleopatra VII, Ms. Cooney argues, because Hatshepsut does not fit patriarchal culture’s paradigm of a powerful woman ruler. Based on the extant evidence, Hatshepsut did not come to power through treachery or force, nor did she make a bad end. Her reign was marked by peace and prosperity for Egypt’s people (though not for Egypt’s southern neighbor, Nubia).

Though I am an ardent feminist, I found this argument less interesting than the history Ms. Cooney presents in The Woman Who Would Be King. In its pages we learn about the elaborate religious rituals Egyptian kings were expected to perform (I’d rather like to see such strenuous feats as a requirement for members of the U.S. Congress), the ways that royal families consolidated and retained power, and why it’s so difficult to understand the psychology of important historical figures like Hatshepsut, her adviser Senenmut, and her co-king Thutmose III.

Hatshepsut’s story, in Ms. Cooney’s telling, is one of political savvy, astute emphasis of her important religious role, and careful cultivation of a changing public gender identity. Were she alive today, I suspect Hatshepsut would be the world’s foremost expert on re-branding.

I think The Woman Who Would Be King will be be of particular interest to readers of historical nonfiction, people with an interest in Ancient Egypt, and anyone who enjoyed Ms. Cooney’s Out of Egypt series. I’d be very interested to read Ms. Cooney’s perspective on a historical figure for whom we have more records and artifacts in the future.

Ms. Cooney explores so many possible ways of thinking about Hatshepsut’s life that I found myself wishing I could read one narrative all the way through to its end. I haven’t read any historical fiction about Hatshepsut, but my friend and fellow blogger Audra at Unabridged Chick, who reads tons of historical fiction, recommends Daughter of the Gods, by Stephanie Thornton.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

7 thoughts on “Review: The Woman Who Would Be King, by Kara Cooney

  1. I tried reading Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff a while ago. I thought I would be fascinated, but I really wasn’t. I learned a few new things, but mostly it was just rehashing a lot of things we already know about her. Maybe this one would be better, because I don’t know much about her already, but maybe it would be frustrating, because it sounds like the author doesn’t know a lot about her for sure either. Just more than the rest of us. Maybe I will just read about her on Wikipedia. 🙂 It’s interesting that she’s not as well known just because her reign was more peaceful.

    • I liked the Stacey Schiff biography because I thought it gave an excellent sense of the culture of the period, which is of course much more difficult in this case. I’d only seen a few TV docs on Hatshepsut, and this book definitely added to the picture of her life, but you’re right that it’s not a picture that can ever be complete.

  2. It strikes me that Carolyn O’s observation — that Hachshepsut is “shrouded in mystery for the very simple fact that she lived a very long time ago and thus very little is known about the details of her reign” is far more persuasive than Kara Clooney’s argument that that Hatshepsut has been overlooked by history because she “does not fit patriarchal culture’s paradigm of a powerful woman ruler.” And this from the same person who has to write a “speculative biography” because so little is known about Hatchsheupsut. I rolled my eyes when I read that one.

    • To be fair, “speculative biography” is my term. I think perhaps her argument was an attempt to make Hatshepsut relevant now given our own political and social concerns, but I don’t think that was necessary. “Here’s an interesting historical figure and here are some possibilities about her reign” would have been enough for me.

  3. Oh i used to be so into historical fiction set in ancient Egypt! I read Pauline Gedge’s Child of the Morning years ago and loved it. It’s been to long for me to remember details, but my quick Google search suggests Hatsepshut’s successors tried to erase her from history for various reasons, her gender being on that list.

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