Review: The Straw King, Vol. 1 – The Pharaoh’s Daughter

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The Straw King tells the captivating story of a bizarre, ancient Babylonian ritual through the eyes of a curious, courageous young woman, though some pacing issues hold this first volume back a little.

In 7th century BCE Egypt, not all princes and princesses destined for the palace. Neith and Sennedjem may be children of the Pharaoh, but they’re so far down the line of inheritance that getting anywhere close to the throne seems out of the question. So they decide to sneak away, and set out on an adventure to see the world …

… only to end up captured by slave traders and sold to Babylon, Egypt’s greatest enemy. As a lady-in-waiting to the Babylonian prince’s favourite courtesan, Neith has a relatively comfortable situation, at least as far as slaves go. But Sennedjem isn’t quite so lucky—he’s been selected as the “Straw King”.

In ancient Babylon, when seers predicted bad omens for the king, he would go into hiding while a surrogate took his place—a lightning rod for whatever ill tidings are fated for the king himself. The whole affair would end with a ritual sacrifice of the fake king to send away the bad fortune once and for all, appeasing the gods and allowing the real king to safely reclaim his throne.

Needless to say, that’s not a fate that either Neith or Sennedjem want. But with her position and the help of a few friendly faces within this foreign land, Neith takes it upon herself to rescue her brother and get both of them back home. But as you might suspect, such plans rarely go according to plan …

An image from The Straw King, showing a high-angle shot of a busy Ancient Egyptian plaza

This is the premise behind The Straw King, a two-volume graphic novel by Isabelle Dethan. It’s a dive into a fascinating period of history, and a glimpse into a little-known but very real Mesopotamian ritual, through the eyes of a young woman who’s quickly learning how cruel the world can be, but has the courage and intelligence to fight through every challenge that comes her way.

Being the first half of the story, The Pharaoh’s Daughter is very much about establishing these characters and setting the scene for what’s to come. It has plenty of action and suspense, but all of that is building up to something bigger—something we won’t find out about until the next volume comes out.

It necessarily leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it can also feel a bit muddled as a consequence. There’s plenty happening in this volume, but little has any sort of satisfying pay-off, even in the short term. I have to wonder if The Straw King would work better as a single book, instead of being split into two volumes. The Pharaoh’s Daughter ends with what should be a big, dramatic cliffhanger, but a sudden and abrupt ending robs that moment of its weight. It doesn’t feel like the end of a volume, or even of a chapter, but like a story that’s just been haphazardly cut in half.

An image from The Straw King, showing Neith using a bench to cross a gap between two balconies

That pacing trouble aside, The Pharaoh’s Daughter is a captivating book. Neith is a curious, complex character—naive and unsure of her place in a world that has very specific views of a woman’s role, but also unwilling to accept things as they are and ready to risk everything to fight for a better lot and to save her brother. Sennedjem is similarly forward-thinking, with bold ambitions far beyond what the consequences of his birth would allow. They’re surrounded by an odd mix of unlikely allies and unscrupulous “friends”—The Straw King isn’t interested in picking sides in an ancient conflict, but in looking at the beauty and ugliness of humanity that has no borders.

The art is particularly impressive, with a watercolour style that really lets the Mediterranean setting come to life—especially in the frequent scenic panoramas and high-angle shots. The characters are detailed and expressive, and the action swift and fluid.

The Straw King is an intriguing work, and some pacing issues aside, The Pharaoh’s Daughter does a fine job of laying the groundwork for what’s to come. I’m looking forward to seeing where Neith and Sennedjem’s series of unfortunate events takes the, whenever the second (and final) volume comes out.

The Straw King, Vol. 1 – The Pharaoh’s Daughter is written and drawn by Isabelle Dethan, and published by Europe Comics.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.