Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut's Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Goodreads Description

An engrossing biography of the longest-reigning female pharaoh in Ancient Egypt and the story of her audacious rise to power in a man’s world.

Hatshepsut, the daughter of a general who took Egypt’s throne without status as a king’s son and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty, was born into a privileged position of the royal household. Married to her brother, she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her inconceivable rule as a cross-dressing king. At just twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of king in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular twenty-two year reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king whose mother Hatshepsut out-maneuvered for a seat on the throne. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays with the veil of piety and sexual expression. Just as women today face obstacles from a society that equates authority with masculinity, Hatshepsut had to shrewdly operate the levers of a patriarchal system to emerge as Egypt’s second female pharaoh.

Hatshepsut had successfully negotiated a path from the royal nursery to the very pinnacle of authority, and her reign saw one of Ancient Egypt’s most prolific building periods. Scholars have long speculated as to why her images were destroyed within a few decades of her death, all but erasing evidence of her rule. Constructing a rich narrative history using the artifacts that remain, noted Egyptologist Kara Cooney offers a remarkable interpretation of how Hatshepsut rapidly but methodically consolidated power—and why she fell from public favor just as quickly. The Woman Who Would Be King traces the unconventional life of an almost-forgotten pharaoh and explores our complicated reactions to women in power.


I was really excited about reading this. I remember first reading about Hatshepsut in high school, and being fascinated by her. I wanted  to know all about her, about her life, about who she was. I was hoping to find it with this book. Unfortunately, I had a really hard time getting into it.

Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist, which I think sounds incredibly cool and also incredibly impractical. For that reason, I admire her. I wish I’d had the courage to go into something that had no practical purpose but was something I deeply enjoyed. (I apologize if this offends anyone, I honestly don’t mean to. It’s just not the kind of life I could manage at this point – I’m forced to be a “practical” adult for various reasons. And that makes me somewhat bitter, I suppose.)

Anyway, I had a hard time getting into this, and though I’ll probably finish it eventually, it’s not something I can read straight through. I’ve got a couple of pet peeves…

For one thing, Cooney repeats the same ideas over and over. In different paragraphs, sure, but no joke, she says the same thing multiple times all throughout the book. On one hand, it’s nice, because it means I’m going to remember that Hatshepsut’s nurse was a parental figure. On the other, it’s annoying as hell.

I also had a hard time with some of the information – sometimes, there are tons of endnotes that give me a hint to the research that led to a certain description or inference. But then, there are times when Cooney appears to be an expert and there’s no mention of any kind of research to back it up. Now, I’m not saying she didn’t do it, or that she’s wrong….but I’d love to know how she can say that in Hatshepsut’s time Cholera, Malaria, and Smallpox were all rampant (I’m nearly positive there’s a historical record of this, but again, there’s no mention). In short, there are too many things the author suspects followed by seemingly concrete knowledge. Where is the explanation for what is supposedly known?

But what REALLY drove me nuts was the constant remind that “we will never know, we cannot know, or we can only guess.” I GET IT. STOP TELLING ME THERE’S VERY LITTLE RECORDED INFORMATION. You don’t have to tell me you’re guessing.

Honestly, I think it would be more interesting to present the history than to waste time with conjecture, but then there might not be a story at all.

I was also turned off by the idea of comparing Hatshepsut’s rule to modern issues women in power face, but that’s because I think that’s a pretty bold assumption. I mean, Cooney’s told me a million times that there’s no way to know….so don’t presume to compare politics 2000 years ago to the present day.

All of that aside, I have enjoyed learning a little more about ancient Egypt, about the way things *could* have been back then. Some of the history is fascinating, and there are some really interesting about attitudes around sex, parenting, and dynasty lineage that they don’t teach you in school (Puritans).

I’ll keep reading the book, in small doses, because I do think it’s interesting…but would I call it groundbreaking? Not in the slightest.

I received this book free from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.