by Elizabeth Peters
Published 1997, 1998
There are two big things about the Amelia Peabody series that I have been really enjoying. The first is Amelia herself – witty, entertaining, insightful, intelligent, an excellent wife, and responsible mother – her voice in these stories is a delight. The second is the way that time actually passes. I can remember reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as a girl and thinking that they must have had a very busy year, since all 50-odd stories seemed to happen at the same time (“18-year-old Nancy Drew drove her blue convertible down the road…” did every story start that way??). Some mystery series do have a passage of time, but since they read very independently, you don’t really notice (think of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance). But others, like the Amelia Peabody books, actually build on one another, adding information and characters with each book. The characters change and grow as well.
And so, by the time we reach Seeing a Large Cat, the children under the care of the Emersons – Ramses (their own son), Nefret (their adopted daughter), and David (an Egyptian boy who, through a series of events, now lives with their family) – are reaching adulthood. Being the independent and clever youth that they are (and having the Emersons as their main adult influence, I’m sure), they aren’t content to sit back and let Emerson and Amelia have all the fun. And so, with this book, we start to see much more of an involvement of the younger characters. One of the ways that Peters does this is to introduce the voice of Ramses as well as Amelia’s.
After the first few books, Peters began to represent herself, through “Editor’s Notes”, as merely the editor of the Emerson’s papers. Peters informs us that she has the charge of sifting through and editing not only Amelia’s journals and manuscripts, but other letters and diaries as well. In Seeing a Large Cat we not only reading from Amelia’s personal record, but also from “Manuscript H,” a third-person account, which we later find is written by Ramses (no real surprise). In The Ape Who Guards the Balance, Amelia’s account and Manuscript H are the main sources of information, but there are also several letters written by Nefret as well.
While I have, in many ways, enjoyed the introduction of some new perspectives, it has been a bit strange to listen to other accounts of the Emersons. Especially in Seeing a Large Cat, it often felt as though the introduction of Manuscript H greatly reduced Amelia’s involvement in the story, and tended to make her appear much more ridiculous and unbelievable. I will say, though, that I am on the third book that includes Manuscript H (Guardian of the Horizon) and do feel as though Peters has somewhat regained her stride, using the multiple voices to complement one another instead of ridicule.
One other point of interest from The Ape Who Guards the Balance – there is a very intriguing scene where Amelia is really forced to do a bit of self-examination. David has fallen in love with Emerson’s niece, and while Amelia loves David dearly, she really has to come to grips with the fact that she is not nearly as open-minded or free of prejudice as she has always believed herself to be – she doesn’t think that the marriage of David, an Egyptian, is appropriate to her niece, and Englishwoman. Peters deals with this topic very well, I thought, as we see Amelia trying to brush it under the rug, pretending that that isn’t the reason she objects to the marriage (“It’s because they’re too young!”) and, in the end, being strongly reminded of the fact that people are people no matter their race or origin, and that an Egyptian (in this case) is just as capable of possessing a high moral code, a chivalrous attitude, and the willingness to lay down his life for another, as anyone else.