"The House of the Eagle",
Book One of the "Ptolomies Quartet",
by Duncan Sprott.
Faber and Faber, 2004, Paperback, £12.99.


Frustratingly, no matter how much you chuckle at the bluster of the opening chapter or the silver-screen-style events already tinted with a hopeful Hollywood glamour, you just wont be able to put the House of the Eagle down.

The narrative of Duncan Sprott's latest book gallops so energetically through the multitude of impossibly exotic characters and happenings, blowing through a dusty and often arcane period of history like a sandstorm whipping past the pyramids, that it is impossible not to get caught up and carried along by it.

"The House of the Eagle" chronicles the colourful lives of the first three generations of the aptly named Ptolemy, or "war-like", dynasty of Ancient Egypt, starting with Ptolemy I's meteoric rise from mere Macedonian foot soldier to Pharaoh of all Egypt and living God.

Getting there, however, is only half the battle for Ptolemy; as he soon finds out, staying there is quite another matter, even for a living deity. Disasters befall him from all directions: his reign is dogged by threats from rulers of neighbouring kingdoms who see opportunities to be had in the rich, and peaceful lands of Egypt, and his rule is equally threatened from the inside by crisis in his unstable family.

But then, taking a second wife and installing her in the same apartments as your first is admittedly asking for trouble.

Euredike is beautiful, docile and the daughter of Old Antipatros of Macedon, one of the richest men in the world. Everything, in fact, a Satrap of Egypt could want in a wife. Only Ptolemy I doesn't count on Euredike bringing with her a striking lady-in-waiting, Berenike, who slowly blossoms under the Egyptian sun and Ptolemy's gaze.

Struck hard by love's arrows, Ptolemy wastes no time in making the strong-minded Berenike his second, but by no means secondary, wife.

Between these two wives, Ptolemy sires a disparate brood of alternately rapacious, half-witted, incestuous and aggressive children whom he largely ignores.

The tales of their marriages to most of the crowned heads of the Mediterranean, as well as to each other, jostle and fight to form an unrivalled saga of adulterous and unnatural passions, cold marriage beds and (often literally) murderous jealousy.

But this is far from just a romp through the scandalous love-lives of a spectacular family; Duncan Sprott weaves a tale that encompasses an extraordinary number of deeply memorable characters and a profound knowledge of the customs, daily lives and politics of an exotic ancient world that springs to renewed, irrepressible life on every page.

Not many writers are brave enough to try their hand at a setting so alien to their own, and fewer still succeed. For years, Norman Mailer's classic "Ancient Evenings" stood as an accomplished, but lonely, panegyric to the glories of Ancient Egypt.

Now, it looks as if it might just have company.

Isobel Owen
March 2004