Egypt has always been a part of Ben’s life; his deep interest in the history is what drove him to become an archaeologist. Now that his schooling complete, Ben is determined to dedicate his life to exploring the past of his parents’ homeland. His first real dig takes him to a place called Abydos. Though he loves toiling in the sun drenched sands of the desert, Ben isn’t immediately acclimatized to an environment so drastically different from his home in England. So when the sirens warn of a sandstorm, Ben finds himself underprepared and far from shelter. He makes a dash for cover, only to be intercepted by a man as handsome as he is enigmatic—and soon, Ben discovers, rich enough to fund the Abydos dig.
Ashari may have the appearance of a man hitting his prime, but the truth is far more complicated. He has spent his life searching for his heart’s match, a love he found and lost centuries in the past. Now, he spends his time in Egypt funding various archaeological projects in hopes that he may reclaim his lost love. But not even his life is that charmed. With so much intervening time, Ashari cannot be sure Ben will understand or accept the truth about their love. And worse, there are formidable opponents called Lessai who seek to have the powerful and influential Ashari for their own. When this puts Ben’s life at risk, Ashari must make some hard decisions that will have severe ramifications for him and Ben.
Hathonatum is a sweeping story that revolves around the love between Ashari and Ben. Just as their connection to each other spans ages, the book itself spans genres. I enjoyed the twist that bridges how these two lovers first meet in ancient Egypt and how they reconnect in modern-day Egypt. Clavelli melds trope and genre to wonderful, and unexpected, effect. I also admire the way Ben’s brother occupies the proverbial hot seat when he must explain to the family what has happened to mild-mannered, well-behaved Ben. As a reader, it was refreshing to read Jared’s completely unvarnished explanation about who Ben’s new boyfriend is—and the utter disbelief with which he is met.
There is a lot of action driving the plot. The Lessai seeking to secure a political marriage with Ashari use Ben as bait to lure the real prize. They team up with local Egyptians who know about Ashari and bear a grudge against him. The two-prong attack kept me guessing about how far-flung Ashari’s enemies are. This culminates into a few action scenes that allow is to get familiar with Ashari and some of his people. This action focuses a bit heavily on technology and fisticuffs, but that served to reinforce Ashari’s backstory. These sequences also built a role for Ben’s brother, Jared. On the surface, Jared provided a little more balance between supporting characters on Ashari’s side and those on Ben’s. Jared’s presence also helped Ben come to terms with a choice that serves irrevocably alters his life.
I was a little on the fence about the romance, personally. There is a lot to enjoy about watching two fated lovers find each other once again. Clavelli kept things fresh by only having Ashari know their full history—one which only visits Ben via dreams. To the reader, there are angst-filled “tells” that Ashari recognizes his long lost lover in Ben, but Ben can only guess at the truth of his past with Ashari via his dreams. The element of their relationship that was somewhat less enjoyable to me was how controlling Ashari seemed. One of the best examples of this is when Ashari goes through the rigmarole that basically binds Ben and Ashari together—without any discussion whatsoever with Ben. Or, rather, the discussion is this (emphasis mine):
Through gritted teeth, Ashari uttered words Ben didn’t understand. Then he demanded, “Do you accept me?”
“Do you accept my seed?”
“Yes.” Ben shouted, “Oh God, yes.”
It wasn’t really clear to me whether Ben ever realized he was basically becoming a rather literal soulmate with Ashari at this dubious “consent” is asked for/given mid-coitus. Another example is when Ashari decides Ben needs an interpretation device implanted into his head, even though there are non-surgical devices that could be used. In this scene, Ben is actually incapacitated due some injuries. Ashari asks the attending doctor how soon a device can be implanted and my gut reaction was “as soon as Ben fluffing asks for one.” Maybe this is supposed to demonstrate Ashari’s depth of caring for Ben, but it was rather a turnoff for me. The guy may be Ben’s one true love, a love for the ages, hot and wealthy and powerful…but these instances where he just seems completely oblivious to the concept of consent rankles.
Overall, Hathonatum delivers a sweeping romance that had me turning pages like crazy. I enjoyed the effort Clavelli put into depicting an archaeological dig and the descriptions of modern day Egypt helped me visualize life in the city as Ben experienced it. The two main characters are part of a fated-lovers type trope and if that’s your bag, I think you’ll really enjoy the romance threads here. Personally, I thought this was tarnished a bit by Ashari’s lack of awareness of basic consent, but I gathered this book wasn’t really about exploring such social issues.