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By Lauren Haney

Avon, 1999

Reviewed by J. Ashley

Bak, an officer in charge of the Medjay police in Wawat (south of present-day Egypt), is dismayed to learn of the vizier of Kemet's decree, that all ships passing through the frontier of Wawat must be searched for contraband. Smuggled goods have been appearing in northern Kemet (Egypt), and queen Hatshepsut wants the trafficking stopped.

This means tedious work for Bak, his second in command, and his colleague, the commander in charge of the army. But contraband is found in a ship run aground in a storm, and Bak has a mystery on his hands. How had the illicit cargo (exotic animals, spices, and jewels) come to be on a ship he'd already searched? Who was the "headless man" the crew describe as the smuggler who gave them the goods?

Soon after this, Bak discovers an uncut elephant tusk on another ship, and takes its bewildered captain into custody. While the captain protests his innocence, he is shot down in the street by a well-aimed arrow. Soon after this, a poor trader dies in the desert, also shot by bow and arrow.

Through careful police work, Bak discovers the connection between the two deaths and uncovers the members (willing or unwilling) of the smuggling conspiracy. He traces the smugglers' journeys south and unravels how the smuggled goods are transferred to the ships. Along the way, he can't help practicing kindnesses to the unfortunate people caught in the criminals' wake--much to his superior's disgust.

This book is a police procedural set in the ancient past. The focus is the plot and Bak's careful detective work. Bak is thorough and methodical: questioning suspects, retracing journeys, furthering his quest with thoughtful deductions.

Haney makes ancient Egypt come to life. She shows the real people of the past: the city people trying to make a day-to-day living, the poor farmers scratching out an existence, the idiosyncracies of life on a frontier. She also provides maps and lists of historical figures so the reader doesn't become lost in an unfamiliar world.

My only complaint about the book is that the characters are not developed to my satisfaction. I want to know more about Bak: his past and his family, lovers, friends, fears, hopes, and sorrows, but we're given very little. Haney tells us he was once a charioteer and is now exiled to Wawat, but she doesn't elaborate.

Other than that, I recommend this book for historical mystery lovers, readers of police procedurals, or readers interested in Egypt. I read much of it on a packed airplane with screaming children and inebriated college students and was still absorbed in the story.

The first book in the series is THE RIGHT HAND OF AMON; the next in the series is A VILE JUSTICE.

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