New, of course, being a bit of a misnomer since the book was published in 2005, but if you haven’t read it it’ll be new to you.
It is impossible to read this book and not see the parallels to the Mummy. If you haven’t seen the Mummy, stop what you’re doing and go watch it. It holds up and this review will be incomprehensible to you otherwise.
The book follows Daphne, one of the most renown language scholars in the world, as she gets her groove back after it being firmly burnt to a crisp by her shitty husband, now deceased. Like Evelyn, she will not shut up for a single second about Egypt’s history, what things mean, what certain scholars think certain hieroglyphs mean and where they’re right or wrong. She lives and breathes this stuff and literally nothing else. Given how much of this is transposed onto text, Chase would have had to do a ton of research (some of which she comments on in the author’s note). She’s bitchy, pedantic and doesn’t have the same issue of being half Egyptian but cast as a white actress. I loved her instantly.
Her brother Miles is great too. He’s not quite the wastrel that Jonathan is, but is just as supportive of his sister’s genius if not more. Miles is in fact the face of her research, since no one would listen to the hysterical ramblings of a woman about academic matters. What next, beastiality?!?!
Rupert is a classic 4th son. Having no obligations, responsibilities or limits have created what some kindly refer to as a man who is “unmanageable.” Unlike McConnel though, he isn’t dismissive of what Daphne wants. She saves him from a dungeon by negotiating for his release like he was “an old rug”, so before he’d even see her, he already respected her. She rescues him because he’s literally the only man in Cairo that can help her track down her brother when he is kidnapped by fortune hunters convinced he can read ancient Egyptian (being a renown scholar and all). And when she says that what she says goes, he accepts it as logical given their strengths. He doesn’t blink over her genius nor feels less than because she’s smarter and richer.
Like McConnel, he has a problem with boundaries. So let’s talk about that.
There are a staggering number of books which include romances (even if, written by a man, they’re rarely classified in the romance genre, but that’s a rant for another day), that do not care about or vastly misunderstand consent. Not only that, but a lot of readers respond positively to precisely that kind of imbalance in power. That is never more apparent than when you look at 50 Shades sales figures.
So what do you do when there is an audience clearly hungry for the sorts of stories where consent is expressly not given? Well, I think a book like this might be the thing. Critics of 50 Shades often said that if people like those books they should just read proper BDSM books instead, but I think that presumes one fantasy when it could just as easily be another. If you are intensely repressed about your sexuality, it doesn’t matter what form of consensual activity it is, the problem is that you have to actually voice your desires. Indeed, BDSM is worse than most for this, sometimes literally involving forms and insurance to make sure everyone is on the same page (which, to be clear, is a good thing).
So what happens in this book and why is it, in my opinion, different?
Rupert constantly hits on Daphne, literally from the minute he sees her, arguably even before. He’s in lust with her before he ever sees her face. He is relentless in flirting, insinuations, and solicitation. Throughout, she clearly states she is not interested. He forces kisses on her, he grabs her boobs without asking, he leers at her, he at no point thinks that since she’s said no, he should back off, but rather he should change tactics.
Personally, none of this stuff worked for me. I’m a big fan of clear, continuous consent in my fiction, so those scenes troubled me. But I tried to think about it, too, from the perspective of Daphne and readers like her.
Daphne does not delve into details about her past, but we do learn a few critical things. We learn that she was a very confident child, encouraged by her dad to pursue an education that was only available at home, since girls weren’t given such education elsewhere. This meant that she grew up very sheltered, too. When she married, she chose a man based on his education, his interest in Egyptian history, and his huuuuuge…. collection of books. He is also a man of faith, which she interpreted as meaning that he would be a kind and affectionate husband who would encourage her as her father did.
He wasn’t. She was scolded for responding too enthusiastically during sex. She was gaslit about her research and shamed for engaging in it to a point where she had to start hiding her work from him or stop it and go mad. By the time he died, she’d been with him for 5 years and had come to believe herself to be unnatural, unfeminine, unworthy of attention for anything other than her research, and even then by only the biggest nerds on earth. She was basically a walking encyclopedia. She found male attention repellent enough that she still wore widow’s weeds five years later, even in the Egyptian heat. There is no indication of her having even passing connections beyond her brother and a correspondence-based relationship with Rupert’s elderly aunt (also a scholar).
The are references to some innocent young crushes in a nostalgic sort of way, like Daphne misses being the kind of person that could feel that strongly about another person, to fall into naive affection. She doesn’t see herself as capable of those feelings anymore. She literally refers to herself as having a man’s brain in a woman’s body (in a “only men can be this smart” way).
When she meets Rupert, she’s instantly attracted to him. This being a novel feeling, she doesn’t hide it well, so he knows right away she’s attracted to him. Mostly, he’s confused because she’s a widow to a husband she didn’t care for and she’s attracted to him, so what’s the problem? He realizes something else is going on and tries to figure out ways around her mental blocks.
For readers who need to have the choice taken away, Rupert is about as good as it gets. He dips a toe in (metaphorically) without asking and she responds by pulling him in the rest of the way and then freaks out about it and he lets her work through things at mostly her own pace. He doesn’t judge her. He doesn’t think she’s less than. He acknowledges her fears and tries to be mindful of them. He admires her for facing her fears, respects her strength and intelligence and cool head, speaks well of her to others, and encourages her to become the most vibrant version of herself even as she thinks she’s a bookish, awkward, man-woman(?) no one could possibly be interested in. He helps her understand that she doesn’t have a man brain, but rather a brain, and a good one. That having sexual desires is entirely normal and if someone can’t handle her enthusiasm then that’s their problem.
He is entirely unapologetic about being in love with her and proudly speaks of her “immense brain” to literally anyone who that stands near him for longer than 30 seconds, even if they don’t speak English and have no idea what he’s saying. He finds her books and ruins and teaches her to defend herself. He is likewise kind to all the strays that Daphne picks up along their journey, including a mongoose, a teenage mom and baby, two cats, two young slaves, etc. He’s basically presented as a natural nurturer who has just never had anyone to nurture and who immediately becomes “manageable” once given trust and responsibility. In other words, this is also not a story about domination. They are partners.
This is leagues apart from a relationship like in 50 Shades, where the relationship itself is abusive, with the so-called hero trying to crush the heroine under his own feelings of inadequacy.
Still, your mileage will absolutely vary on how cool you are with it.
One other note about this story. There are a LOT of, shock and awe, Egyptian characters. As if the story is actually set in Egypt, where most people would be Egyptian. Wild! Would I have preferred that one of the leads be a person of colour as well? Definitely. Second to that, the absolute wealth of characters, all unique – even when they are in the book for less than a paragraph, really brings this story to life.
Oh right, and there are no actual (living) mummies or curses, though Miles does pretend to be a ghost at one point and it is fantastic.