by Karen Frost
A barnstormer. A Wild West trick shooter. A mathematician.
When archaeologist Anna Baring announces the founding of the Lady Adventurers Club in May 1923, none of the other three members expect to ever meet again. After all, they live halfway around the world from each other. What could possibly bring them together once more? Then they each receive an unexpected letter. Anna has found a tomb that promises to be even grander than that of King Tutankhamun, and she wants them to come to Egypt for the opening.
It’s the find of the century. The tomb will make old Tut look like a pauper. But will the women of the Lady Adventurers Club get to see it? Egypt is a political powder keg. Unscrupulous criminals keep shooting at them. And weird, unnerving things seem to happen wherever they go. As the women race across Egypt, their friendship will be tested as they fall deeper into danger. They’re not the only ones after a pharaoh’s treasure.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"The Lady Adventurers Club was inspired by the fearless, groundbreaking, often under-celebrated women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of the characters is modeled in part on an actual woman who lived during that time period, meaning she could have been in a real-life Lady Adventurers Club.
Egypt in 1923 was a natural setting for this book because the world was still caught up in Egyptomania and the aftermath of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. Egypt was simultaneously a popular tourist destination and a country shaking off the yoke of imperialism, holding its first elections and seeking to chart its own course independent of European control.
I love the characters of this book because they represent the drive and achievement of women of this time period. A barnstormer, a Wild West trick shooter, a mathematician and an archaeologist aren’t just tropes, but they really existed at this time. And it’s even better when they get to come together and enable their skills to work in harmony for a wild ride across the desert!"
Kathryn M. - I loved the women of The Lady Adventurers Club, it was such a great read. It had what I was looking for in a historical novel and from this genre of book. The characters were interesting, and I was invested in the adventure that was going on. I really enjoyed reading this, and I hope the women have another adventure.
Kaye C. - Fun beginning of what I hope is a new series. This is an adventure to read, think Indiana Jones but with a team of talented women.
Cheryl W. - For those looking for an action/adventure story and a little romance, this is the book for you.
Betty H. - I had a lot of fun reading this book. If you love adventure, intrigue, romance, and a bit of the paranormal in your historical fiction novels, then give this book a try.
The Lesbian Review
If you enjoy your romance mixed with a rip-roaring adventure, then this is the book for you. Karen Frost allowed her characters to become more than they ever could as individuals. By joining together as the Lady Adventurers Club, they found strengths they could never have imagined. For some, they found a love that they never knew existed. I was swept away with them.
26 November, 1922
The candle flame flickered, buffeted by the cool air escaping from the tiny hole that had been made into the top left-hand corner of the tomb wall. On the other side, visible only through a peephole, was blackness dark as the nubile, naked body of the Egyptian goddess Nut, the Coverer of the Sky, She Who Holds a Thousand Souls. Archaeologist Anna Baring, seeing the darkness, whispered under her breath a prayer from the tomb of the Singer of Amun Henut-wadjebu: “O my Mother Nut, stretch Yourself over me, that I may be placed among the imperishable stars which are in You, and that I may not die.” Then she whispered a second, more modern prayer, “Please let this bloody tomb have something in it.” It wasn’t eloquent and it wasn’t directed at any particular god, but of the two it was the more heartfelt. And if any gods were listening, modern or ancient, hopefully they would grant it.
There was reason to be worried. In the last hundred years, sixty-two tombs had been found in the dusty, endlessly beige Valley of the Kings. And every last one had been robbed centuries or—more commonly—millennia before, cracked open like mollusks, their contents slurped out by a relentlessly hungry, greedy world. Now Anna was standing at the threshold of the sixty-third. The odds of a different outcome were not just against her, they were almost impossible. Already, there were unmistakable signs this tomb, too, had been breached by grave robbers. If it was the tomb of the boy king, as the seal impressions on the wall bearing his cartouche indicated, it was likely just as much a dry, empty husk as the others; one more in a long line of disappointments.
Anna had had enough of disappointments. One didn’t defy one’s father’s wishes and spend decades in the desert to have nothing to show at the end of it. One didn’t spend nights lying sleepless in the Egyptian heat, give up friendships and comfort for nothing but endless rocks and dirt. There had to be something here. But what?
She hardly knew. The people who knew what an intact tomb looked like were in no position to say. They had turned to bone and dust long ago. All she had was imagination, and she was nothing if not grandly imaginative.
Despite the odds, a sort of electricity crackled in the air, filling it with heady, tangible optimism. Anna felt a certainty bordering on giddy madness. This was it. This was the untouched tomb she and Howard Carter had spent years seeking.
Their search wasn’t only about discovery and science, persistence, and determination. It was about the majesty of the pharaohs and their unimaginable, impossibly vast trove of treasures. It was about the glory of the ancients and their unwavering belief in a second life beyond the grave for which they could bring—both literally and figuratively—the full panoply of their wealth. If the rooms on the other side of the wall were untouched, it would be the archaeological find of the millennium. Yes, she and Carter would be feted from Cairo to London, but more importantly, the world would see for the first time the full splendor of the Egyptian pharaohs. So much for the Louis XIVs, John D. Rockefellers, and Nicholas IIs of the world—this was the kind of unimaginable wealth that built pyramids out of sand. This was what she had given her life for.
She shivered with anticipation despite the heavy heat of the valley, her heart racing. She ached with a longing that set her skin on fire to know what waited on the other side of the wall. But she would have to wait. The honor of being the first to see what lay through that tiny puncture in the veil between modernity and antiquity went to the two men clustered tightly around it.
Carter, cutting the perfect figure of an archaeologist with his slicked-back hair, high-waisted gray wool trousers, and loose white cotton shirt, pressed his forehead to the cool, pale limestone. Although he had rolled his sleeves up to his elbows and loosened his bow tie, any pictures commemorating this moment would show the sweat that soaked his back and left dew in his thick black mustache. In Luxor, there was no escape from the heat, even dozens of meters underground. The man waiting impatiently beside him, impeccably dressed in a brown three-piece suit with matching fedora and cane, was their patron, the patrician George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon. Anna knew this glimpse inside Aladdin’s cave belonged to the two men by right, since Carter was the head archaeologist for the dig and Carnarvon the purse strings, but even so, she couldn’t help feeling jealous. Hers would be the third pair of eyes to see whatever lay inside. She would have to wait her turn until they had drunk their fill of the glories within, and she was not a patient woman.
“Can you see anything?” Eagerness vibrated in Carnarvon’s clipped and slightly nasal voice. As was true for Anna and Carter, this endless search for the fabled lost tombs of Egypt’s god-kings had become his life’s work. But unlike them, he had been losing faith. Until a few days ago, he had been ready to abandon the dig, to toss in the towel and let the valley keep its secrets. Then they found the steps to the tomb, and everything changed.
Carter said nothing. Anna’s mood shifted instantly, a ship changing tack in the wind. Her chest squeezed tight with fear. Was his silence because he was considering how to tell them that what lay on the other side was nothing but shattered dreams and the corpses of scorpions? Was he pondering the valley’s mocking curse—that every tomb found was fated to be empty? If all that awaited them on the other side of the wall was dust and potsherds, their years of backbreaking work, of endless hours sweating in the sun to find just one intact tomb of the pharaohs were for nothing.
Anna couldn’t bear to think what she would do then. Would she abandon Egypt and go to England? Give up on everything that she had striven for in a pique of frustration and despair? Her blood may have been fully British, but she was born and had lived almost her entire life in Egypt. Egypt was her home. This land had understood her even when her own family hadn’t. It had willingly opened its bosom to her axes and shovels, giving of itself selflessly. Yet if all her efforts had been for nothing, was that not a sign that even the earth here rejected her? If so, where did she belong?
She licked her lips, her mouth dry, and rubbed her palms against her hips to take away the sweat. She had to calm herself. All hope was not lost yet. There was no curse upon the valley. An intact tomb could still be found.
What may have been several lifetimes or only a minute later, Carter replied to Carnarvon’s query about his view. “Yes, it is wonderful.” And the awe in his voice revealed that whatever he was seeing, it was indeed breathtaking.
Anna took a deep breath, suddenly lightheaded. The air filled her all the way to the tips of her ears, and with it hope, joy, and relief. She was a firework, rocketing through the air, on the brink of an explosion. She was dizzy. She clutched the tomb wall, grounding herself.
Carnarvon took off his brown hat and ran its brim through his hands, looking down at it as though he didn’t know how to react. His light brown mustache—which always reminded Anna of an excavation brush—twitched. “Then we’ve done it?” There was both uncertainty and cautious hope in his voice.
Half of Carter’s face seemed to disappear into the hole, including all of his distinctive Roman nose and most of his lantern jaw. “It’s too soon to tell for now. It could be a cache like the others.”
Anna crashed back down to earth. What? No. Not a cache. Not again.
During the 21st Dynasty, Egypt’s priests had moved dozens of royal mummies whose tombs had been robbed from the Valley of the Kings to a place called Deir al-Bahri. There, a single tomb had become the unceremonious dumping ground for some of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. By then, all of their funerary trappings—the gold, ebony, precious gems, alabaster, and ivory with which they’d been buried—were gone, their gold sarcophagi melted down. The robbers had been so vicious in their plundering they had even torn the wrappings off the mummies, dislocating and destroying limbs and faces as they’d tried to pry off the solid gold amulets that had been wrapped with the bodies to speed the dead to the afterlife. This sad cache had been heartbreaking enough. Then a second cache had been discovered in the valley. If the tomb in which they now stood was a third cache…
Anna had to fight against the desire to shove Carter aside and monopolize the view for herself. Surely he was being cautious. It couldn’t just be a cache, not if he had seen “wonderful things.” A cache wouldn’t be wonderful, it would be soul crushing. For four years, she had lived in a mud-brick hut adjacent to his and spent almost every waking hour walking the burning sands of the valley, melting like candle wax in the relentless heat and fighting mosquitos at night. If the tomb was a child, he was the father, but she the mother. She couldn’t bear for that child to be stillborn.
Abruptly, Carter spoke again, disrupting her thoughts. “There’s gold. Gold, everywhere. Statues…beds…chests…alabaster vases…chariot wheels.” His voice rose with excitement as he enumerated each item. “And another sealed doorway!”
He stepped back from the wall, bringing the candle with him. His face was flushed. Sweat dripped down the side of his face and into his mustache, carrying with it dirt from the plaster wall that turned to soft mud in the long hairs. “I think we may have done it. I think she may be untouched!”
He was triumphant, ecstatic, but Anna was still shell-shocked. In the space of minutes, she had gone from the top of the world to the bottom. Returning to the top now left her spinning. But also buzzing. The tomb was intact. They had done it!
Carter handed the candle to Carnarvon, then quickly widened the hole with a chisel enough that the two of them could look through at the same time, two children with their faces pressed to the glass of a candy shop. For an agonizing few minutes, they were silent. Anna ground her teeth, feeling as though she might shed her skin like a cicada. How much gold was there? Was the room positively filled with it? How big was the room?
“Extraordinary,” Carnarvon said finally, leaning back and looking at his chief archaeologist. “Just extraordinary.”
They stepped away from the hole and shook hands, overjoyed by what they’d seen. This was their victory, a shared moment of triumph for two determined, passionate men who had invested so much of themselves into this moment. Carter took Carnarvon’s elbow to guide him out of the passage, already chattering about what steps needed to be taken in the next few days to secure the tomb. As he passed her, he handed Anna the candle with a nod.
She immediately rushed to the hole, pushing her body against the wall and threading the candle through to the other side. At first, she saw nothing. The candle swam in front of her eyes, the red-orange flame shimmying in the air like a belly dancer. Then, slowly, other shapes resolved themselves.
She was looking into what was almost certainly the antechamber, a sort of foyer that separated the passage from the burial chamber. And it was full of…everything. A row of three funerary beds stood along the wall across from her in the shapes of a hippopotamus, a cow, and a lioness. Their gilt paint caught the light of the candle and reflected it back at her, sparkling like gold in a mineshaft. Stacked on the floor around them were plain wooden chests and empty wicker crates. Piled on top and below them was, for lack of a better word, bric-a-brac: benches; small wooden tables; petite, ornate chests; ovular, white wood boxes; beautiful alabaster jugs in the shape of lily and papyrus plants; and an exquisitely wrought black-and-white chair with gold inlay.
A shiver ran up her arms and found a home in her heart. These objects hadn’t been seen by human eyes for over three thousand years. Below the hippopotamus bed was a golden chair. It was hard to make out all of its delicate, gorgeous details in the dim, flickering light, but on the backrest she saw the image of a seated pharaoh and his wife, their skins the color of brown ochre. The armrests were the pale blue wings of a vulture wearing the double crown of Egypt. Yes, a voice whispered, electric with excitement. This must be Tutankhamun’s tomb.
With effort, she tore her eyes away from it, forcing herself to keep looking at the items that filled the room. To her left, a golden chariot lay disassembled among a pile of wheels. To her right, two life-sized statues with gold jewelry and black skin faced each other. She gasped, a silent inhalation of shock and pleasure to see such large effigies of a pharaoh. Dust floated into her nose, and she sneezed. Once, twice. The air was close and rank after millennia of being cut off from the rest of the world, but it was the air of the New Kingdom. She was literally breathing history itself.
She withdrew the candle and stepped back, rubbing her nose. Her emotions swirled, overwhelming and exhilarating. This was a monumental, unmatched moment for archaeology and Egyptology. It was everything she had dreamed.
And yet…something was wrong.
She leaned against the wall, plain beige and bare of hieroglyphics, and tried to identify what it was. Hadn’t there been gold in the tomb? Hadn’t it been grand and awe inspiring?
No. And that was the problem. These were the treasures of a pharaoh? This was the sum of Tutankhamun’s ten years of rule? It was true that for a moment, she’d allowed herself to be overcome by the emotion of seeing this intact tomb, but now that she reflected on what she’d seen, she couldn’t deny a nagging, quiet undercurrent of disappointment. The chair aside, nothing else had been of superfluous craftsmanship and value. In fact, looking at the artifacts with an objective eye, they weren’t terribly different from what had been found in the tomb of the nobles Yuya and Thuyu, who had lived only a generation or two before him and whose tomb had been robbed several times. The paint was often shoddy, and frankly, it was clear everything had been thrown haphazardly into the small chamber, piled together without any attempt at order or organization.
If she was honest, it all looked a little too much like her gran’s study, full of oddities and curiosities but lacking grandeur. Even the gilt was chipping away at the edges, and not just due to age. Her father would have scoffed at the tomb’s poverty and condescendingly called it “a bit of a mess.” Even the walls, which for most other pharaohs had been covered floor to ceiling with decoration, were utterly barren. It wasn’t picturesque, and it certainly wouldn’t awe the tourists that flocked to the Valley of the Kings in the winter months.
She bit her lip, pushing back against her ambivalent feelings. She shouldn’t rush to judgment. There would be more to see inside the tomb. There would be other chambers, including the burial chamber. Who knew what treasures could be piled around Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus? And yet…
She considered again the small antechamber and the blank limestone walls of the passage. Clearly, the tomb had been carved for a noble, not a pharaoh. As she and Carter had suspected, Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor, must have switched tombs with the young king and dumped him here with callous indifference. Had he stolen Tutankhamun’s gold as well? The answer lay on the other side of that wall, but she had a feeling she knew it already.
Blowing out the candle, she strode down the passage, bracing herself for the bright sunlight that awaited her. It was midmorning, and already the heat was starting to build in the valley. In a few hours, it would be ungodly. She handed her beige pith helmet and the candle to one of the Egyptian workers, then climbed the steps back to the valley floor. As she patted dust off her shirt, not only Egyptian eyes, but curious European ones, too, watched her. Every year, thousands of Egyptophiles from all over the world flocked to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, and the Valley of the Kings. All the tourists who happened to be visiting today had gathered to watch the opening of the tomb. Everyone knew the Egyptians had more gold than Midas, and it would be the story of a lifetime to say they were there when some was found.
But Anna didn’t care about the stories they would tell back home and had no interest in answering the questions they shouted to her. She marched past, ignoring their cries with her chin held high, and headed to the tomb immediately next door. This was the tomb of Ramses VI (usurped, of course, from his predecessor, Ramses V). It had been looted long ago in antiquity, but she nevertheless considered it the most beautiful tomb in the entire valley. It had five corridors, three regular chambers, and a large burial chamber, all of which were intricately and breathtakingly decorated. It was one of the biggest tombs, too, with soaring, dramatic ceilings. It was a marvel of Egyptian engineering and artistry, a testament to the ancients’ skill at coaxing beauty from rock. Unlike its neighbor, this was clearly and undeniably the tomb of a pharaoh.
Taking a deep breath and slowing her stride to an amble, she made her way through the corridors. When she came upon two Belgian tourists marveling at the painted scenes in sunk relief that lined every inch of the tall walls and ceiling, she vicariously shared in their awe. Although much of the paint had been lost in time, there were still more than enough flashes of yellow, blue, and red to know how majestic the white walls must have once been. Gods, slaves, and the pharaoh himself wove through every inch of Ramses VI’s final resting place. Bitter frustration teased Anna’s tongue. This was how Tutankhamun’s tomb should have looked. This was the splendor of a pharaoh’s tomb.
When she reached the burial chamber, she sat down on a shelf of half-carved rock and tilted her head back to look at the bright blue-and-yellow painting from the Book of Sky that ran the length of the ceiling. She felt lost. Ramses’s tomb was elaborate, grand, and imposing. Tutankhamun’s, on the other hand, was featureless, close, and underwhelming.
It was then she realized what was bothering her most. She had found the pharaoh she had spent years seeking, but somehow, unbelievably, he had turned out to be a pauper. The pharaohs were not poor. Amenemhat I, for example, had claimed to have built a palace decked with gold, whose ceilings were made of lapis lazuli. Ramses III’s palace, meanwhile, was reported to have had a floor of silver and doors of gold and black granite. And yet almost more treasure had been found in the tombs of regular nobles than she’d seen just now in Tutankhamun’s tomb. His tomb, that plain cave, was an anomaly, a pale facsimile of what a pharaoh’s tomb should be.
Her heart sank as she imagined what they would find in the rest of the tomb: pottery, wood statues, and low-quality jewelry. As an archaeologist, it should have been enough for her. Her discovery of an intact pharaonic tomb would forever be memorialized, and she and Carter would spend years cataloguing its contents. It should have been the discovery of a lifetime. But it wasn’t enough.
She clenched her fists, resolve building in her. There were still four New Kingdom tombs that hadn’t been found: Ahmose I, Thutmose II, Ramses VIII, and Amenhotep I. They were out there somewhere. One of them might have what she was seeking. Once Tutankhamun’s tomb had been properly excavated, she would find it. She was destined to. Tutankhamun’s tomb wasn’t the end of her journey. It was only the beginning.