Why do I call this courageous? Because Peters’ style had a rather unique quality, with braggadocio mixed with a deprecating humor in a way that just worked, and was quite unlike anything I’d personally read before. I didn’t think the style would be impossible for another writer to spread in to, but I considered that it could be very challenging.
A second aspect is that, for me at least, the underlying plots of the murder mysteries became secondary to the sense of family and the development of characters like Ramses and Nefret. The adventure of solving the crimes was at times part of the character development, and at times something I wanted to have done so that I’d find out what would happen in their personal stories. So yes, I got hooked into the soap opera element of the continuing series — hungry for the next news of Ramses and Nefret’s romance — anxious for the next contact with Sethos and what it would mean — wondering if Emerson’s brother and sister-in-law would ever come back in for a major contribution.
Why do I mention all this before I discuss “The Painted Queen”? Because the manner in which the character development and humor are presented are, to me, the hinge upon which the success of this novel rests as an integral entry in the Amelia Peabody series.
The result, I’ll report, is a bit mixed, but it weighs in much more on the positive side of the ledger. I find the characterizations to be true, and the elements of the plot live up to the series as written by Peters. Amelia’s “journals” provide the essence of her entertaining personality, if not always presented with the subtlety of Peters’ style.
“The Painted Queen” covers a “lost year” in the series, and one that came in the middle of a most important sequence of character development. It is set after “The Falcon at the Portal”, where Nefret marries someone other than Ramses in a mistaken rage at Ramses — and “He Shall Thunder in the Sky”, where Ramses and Nefret have a very rocky road to reconciliation. After having Ramses and Nefret present as a happy couple and competent motive force, I’m not sure how you mentally go back to a time before that, but then again Peters intended to fill in many of the missing years, and those include periods of time “pre-Ramses/Nefret”. This was the third book in that goal, after “Guardian of the Horizon” and “A River in the Sky”. Thus far I’ve read the series in publication order, so I have yet to “go back in time” to those books, meaning that “The Painted Queen” is my first experience of these missing years. However, it comes not long after I read the two novels which bookend it, which put me in a good position to evaluate it against the timeline.
Hess seems to get right into action more quickly and with a more rapid pace than I’ve been used to from Peters. Some might think that an improvement. I have come to enjoy the circumlocution which Peters frequently employed with both Amelia and Ramses, so I found delays before and during action to be a charming element of the color of these novels, and therefore the slight difference in Hess’ style was more noticeable for that reason. However, I don’t really consider this a criticism, just a difference, as had to happen in some ways when one author completes the work of another — especially in a series this long with such a well established style.
So while “The Painted Queen” doesn’t serve as a wrap-up to the series, as one might expect of a “last book”, it does give us a last experience with the characters we’ve come to enjoy and feel close to. It is certainly a solid offering. While some passages seem to lack the light touch of Peters, the overall tone is quite familiar and acceptable.
If you’re a fan of the Amelia Peabody series, you certainly won’t want to miss this last tribute to the characters and their marvelous author.