The path to happiness can be crooked and twisted with daunting barriers along the way. In Vanessa MacLellan’s debut novel, Three Great Lies, the key characters seek their own forms of happiness – only attainable when they recognize the truth about themselves.
MacLellan sets her tale in Egypt. Her bored and self-absorbed protagonist, Jeannette, decides to trust a local teenaged boy, to show her a newly opened tomb with no tourists. She survives a harrowing ride in a motorcycle sidecar to arrive at the site. Like Alice before her, she soon finds herself tumbling down the rabbit hole. Jeannette awakens from the fall and learns she is still in Egypt, but Egypt from 3,000 years ago.
Thematically, the story resembles the Wizard of Oz, but this is not simply a retelling of the L. Frank Baum stories. Jeannette desires only to get home, and she is soon joined by companions with desires of their own – Abayomi, a mummy who seeks his lost heart scarab so he can continue his journey to the underworld. Sanura, a shapeshifting cat-girl who wants to complete the task set for her by her mother. The goddess Bast, so she can return to the company of her brothers and sisters in her birthing batch. Instead of a wicked witch, they incur the wrath of the master slaver. The Oz similarities quickly fall away.
Instead of embracing the support Abayomi and Sanura can provide, Jeannette abandons them, sulking in denial as to her new reality. She finds a job and shelter. It is only after she has settled into the daily routine of Kemet, as ancient Egypt is known, does she realize she needs them if she is to return to her time. Each is ill-equipped to accomplish their goals on their own. It takes a good deal of growing and learning together before they create a multi-step plan to solve all their problems.
MacLellan takes no shortcuts in getting them there. Abayomi, Sanura and Jeannette are forced to deal with their circumstances head on, making mistakes, learning from them and re-assessing their desires as the tale progresses. They come to know each other and earn each other’s respect, especially Abayomi and Jeanette, whose early interactions played as a 3,000-year-old culture gap and seemed to be headed for an unrelenting gender war.
The use of an animated mummy and a hybrid cat-person as supporting characters was a bold choice by MacLellan, and it is a bit unusual for a novel listed as historical fiction. It works, as each contrasts the other. Abayomi is a strong character who understands his dilemma. He is dead, and he is a mummy, but he identifies as a man, one with a lifetime of experience. He proves his value over and over. Sanura is not very strong and is confused by her situation. Her task is set for her by Bast, and she is unsure of what to do; she cannot define herself. Although she is the daughter of a goddess, she lacks extraordinary abilities. As young as she is, she identifies as a kitten and longs for her lost childhood. Her value is revealed in bits and pieces. Despite the differences, Abayomi and Sanura are committed to Jeannette, and their devotion to her and the overall cause are vital to the overall resolution.
All the while, there is Kemet – not quite the ancient Egypt we think we know. Kemet is vast and magical, filled with pyramids, tombs and mystical creatures. It’s a nice change in perspective, though, as MacLellan shows us what these things we already associate with Egypt look like then – pyramids under construction, tombs shiny and new, and creatures we think of as old drawings on a wall walking and talking as part of a larger community. Making a setting like this believable is a monumental challenge, and MacLellan does so beautifully.
In the end, Three Great Lies is a story never before told. In MacLellan’s vivid setting, the unlikely trio of Jeannette, Abayomi, and Sanura adapt and overcome. Through their continued association, their bonding as a group and their love for each other, they recognize their true desires and overcome the obstacles that were the three great lies.