The Hippopotamus Marsh

by Pauline Gedge

Published by Viking

1999, 480 pages

Buy it online






Recreational Drugs for the Soul

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


At its very best, fiction carries us away from the mundane trivialities of our everyday lives; to see places and meet people we might not otherwise come across. Like recreational drugs for the intellect, good fiction spirits us away completely to a place where "Visa bill" and "veal fattening pen" have no meaning and our souls are fed to repletion.

If these things truly are requisite for a successful novel, then The Hippopotamus Marsh -- Pauline Gedge's ninth novel -- is a winner on all counts.

Like the majority of Gedge's work, The Hippopotamus Marsh is set in ancient Egypt. This time we're in the 17th Dynasty, in the house of Prince Seqenenra Tao, a hereditary god and king whose family has been forced for generations to live under the rule of foreign Setiu kings. Seqenenra and his family have an idyllic life in Weset: they govern the area gently and are loved by the people they rule. But they are governors for the Setiu king, and this rankles: especially when the king begins to send decrees that seem to be intended to take from them the small power they maintain. One such decree from the king is obviously intended to push Seqenenra over the brink:

It distresses me to make this command to my friend Seqenenra, but the pool of the hippopotamuses which is in Weset must be done away with. For the noise of their bawling is in my august ears day and night and they permit me no sleep.

After a lifetime of dealing with increasingly ridiculous requests, Seqenenra knows that he is being pushed; a fear he voices not long after he reads the scroll asking him to kill the hippopotamuses.

"I think he wishes us to violate our ancient agreement with him," Seqenenra answered quietly. "He wants us to give him an excuse to bring his army here, to exile us. Or worse, to install a governor without a drop of royal blood in his veins. Then he will be able to sleep."

However, Seqenenra doesn't see a lot of options and begins to muster an army. The battle this leads to -- however well-drawn -- isn't the object of the exercise, however. The road there -- as well as the road home -- are filled with nasty politics -- quite worthy of late 20th century America -- as well as intrigue and conspiracy in every imaginable flavor.

Gedge brings it all off with the aplomb and magic that has carried her through her earlier works. Under her dedicated and caring pen, ancient Egypt springs to balmy life.

Seqenenra rose, stretched, and made his way to the side of the barge, first hypnotized by the steady running of the wake the craft was making and then fixing his eyes on the bank gliding past. Villages, stiff palms, canals mirroring a bronze sky, sometimes a nearly-naked peasant leading a donkey, all appeared, imprinted themselves briefly on his consciousness tinged with a haze of heat, and slid away like waking dreams.

The Hippopotamus Marsh is the first book in the Lords of the Two Lands trilogy; there is no word on when the other two might become available. Gedge's other titles have sold almost six million copies internationally and been translated into 17 languages. Her first novel, 1977's Child of the Morning, was the story of Egypt's only woman pharaoh. The book has been in constant demand in the 22 years since publication. Her other books include The Twelfth Transforming; Scroll or Saqqara, House of Dreams and -- most recently -- House of Illusions. | March 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.