“There is something here, in grains of sand. Something is new. It has never been here before, like this. Long it has not been at all.”
Voices in Crystal by Mary Woldering is a deep dive into Ancient Egypt, specifically the Old Kingdom period. She presents her story from the viewpoint of those within it, so we are given Kemet, Asar, Heru, Ineb-hedj, pyr-akh, rather than the more familiar Hellenized terms: Egypt, Osirus, Horus, Memphis, pyramid. The hero is a “man of Ai”, rather than a man from the Sinai peninsula. We are reminded that the pyramids were originally gleaming white, and we see the Pyramid of Menkaure being built in the background. Woldering’s Ancient Egypt is a place where the stars speak, where priests go spirit walking, and where people who talk to the gods expect answers. It is a world full of people struggling to “…calm the rage that comes of thwarted desires…”, and the story is certainly replete with desires both thwarted and fulfilled.
Voices in Crystal follows the journey of Marai, a simple shepherd who witnesses a falling star that is not a star. He takes this descending glittering orb to be his favored deity—Ashera, Queen of Heaven—even as the shock wave of its impact knocks him off his feet. He hears voices calling him, and he sets out to find “the goddess’ boat.”
The entities he encounters at the landing site restore him, cleanse him, and endow him with superpowers: impossible strength, slow motion vision during combat, eternal youth, telepathy, and even the ability to channel the gods through automatic writing (I was particularly envious of this last one). They also give him a mission, based on their “new understanding of an old duty”—they implore him to “Hasten to the White Wall” bearing a bag of crystals to give to Djedi, son of Sneferu, founding pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. Then they miraculously restore three fallen women to goddess-like condition so that they can assist him on his journey. Marai finds that:
“We change and create legends as we move through life. It is a thing those who walk with the gods do.”
The author’s style emphasizes the inherent uncertainty of her characters’ world view; they are never quite sure whose voices they are hearing, the meaning of the cryptic words they are given, the intentions behind them, or even if they are being spoken aloud. They have visions but don’t trust them, since they are unable to tell if they are past, present, or future. It’s as if Woldering has peeled away not just the Hellenized names, but centuries of Hellenistic rational thought, to a time when intuition was given free rein. We are thrust into a crude, violent world populated with superstitious, desperate, lusty people, where magic is a viable strategy, song and dance cast spells, greed is an assumed motivation of everyone encountered, and ritualized sex in the street is no more shocking than public murder. She shows us a long ago time when those in authority couldn’t be trusted and those who could be trusted had no authority.
I thought it was all a bit far-fetched until I turned on the news and suddenly realized that Woldering is spot on when she wrote:
“…Earth is a cosmic mirror, as is the past and the future … each act above also happens below … what we see in the past happens in the future …”
In some ways little has changed: we still have people in positions of power making civilization-changing decisions based on petty personal slights, we still have public murder in the streets, and we still question whether the voices we hear are coming from live people or ghosts, angels, demons or gods—except now we see our visions and hear our voices on exterior screens instead of interior ones.
So the question posed by Voices in Crystal is: just because someone is your teacher, your priest, your lover, your historian, your facebook pal, your god, can you trust everything they tell you? Can you trust every image or video or vision you see? Ultimately we are the only ones who can decide—who must decide—in every moment what is real, who is trying to help us and who intends us harm, who we can forge an alliance with, who we owe allegiance to; in short, who we can trust. For in the end we all find ourselves in Marai’s position—wondering if we will survive the results of a decision we made almost entirely based on trust. And why did we make that decision, whatever it was? Why did we choose to believe that flattering voice, that sparkly vision? As Woldering so insightfully puts it:
“To be something one is not; that is the real hunger, never filled.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Voices in Crystal, and I look forward to the story continuing in the rest of the Children of Stone series: Going Forth By Day, Opener of the Sky, and Heart of the Lotus.