I’ve gotten a lot of comments lately about how “original” my story “Guardian of Our Beauty” was. While I’ll readily admit that not that many writers set fantasies in the Ancient Near East, I’m not the only one! So, for those of you who would enjoy some more Ancient Near Eastern fantasy, here are a few that I’ve encountered.
(First, a quick note. The “Near East” refers to the geographic area now usually known as the Middle East—Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Turkey, parts of Iran. The Arabian peninsula is also part of this region, although we don’t know much about what was happening there during the ancient period. The “Ancient” part of “Ancient Near East” refers to the period between the beginning of civilization there and the 1st century AD.)
My favorite Ancient Near Eastern fantasy series is the Farsala trilogy by Hilari Bell. This trilogy (Fall of a Kingdom, Rise of a Hero, Forging the Sword) is a magical take on the Roman Empire’s attempted conquest of Persia, and contains the usual hallmarks of Bell’s work: great characters who get dragged into complicated social/political/military problems and must learn to overcome their own selfishness in order to win the day. I love Bell’s writing—I wouldn’t want to admit how many times I’ve read the books of her Knight and Rogue series! To new readers of her work I would say: you may be very irritated with the main characters at the beginning, but you will love them by the end.
I was recently reminded of another ANE fantasy series—Mercedes Lackey’s Dragon Jousters series. This tetrology (Joust, Alta, Sanctuary, Aerie) is set in a thinly-disguised version of Egypt, probably during the Third Intermediate Period (the pyramids have been built, the Hyksos have been thrown out, and Egypt is divided into a northern Delta kingdom and a southern kingdom that stretches from Thebes to Memphis). But with added dragons! The hero, Kiron, must escape serfdom and slavery by training a dragon, and then engineer the downfall and restructuring of all Egypt. I enjoy this series a lot more than some of Lackey’s others (the romance is minimal until the 4th book), and the dragon training is very interesting. Unfortunately, the writing sometimes suffers from lack of editing. I’m reminded of the advice Anne of Green Gables received from her writing mentor, to give up italics—they’re so often used as a way of pushing the reader to feel more urgent than the writing (or the situation) really justifies.
The only other ANE fantasy I can think of is Esther Friesner’s duology Sphinx’s Princess and Sphinx’s Queen, which give a magical retelling of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti’s life. If you are interested in well-researched historical details, these books will impress you. I found them so accurate as to be almost chilling—the world is frightening when the only gods you have are absent and uncaring!
There are many, many fantasies set in the ancient period but outside the Ancient Near East—usually in the classical world (Greece and Rome). My favorite of these will always be C. S. Lewis’ retelling of the Greek myth of Apollo and Psyche, Till We Have Faces. It’s a wonderful story, where the main character finds true redemption in the end. It includes echoes of many fairy tales, and will remind some readers of Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s Starflower.