THE SHEPHERD KINGS

By Judith Tarr

Forge. 512 pp. $27.95

Judith Tarr, who has written a dozen novels, including the highly acclaimed "Pillar of Fire," "White Mare's Daughter" and "Queen of Swords," holds degrees in ancient and medieval history from Yale and Cambridge. Though she places her books in a variety of locations and periods, she seems particularly at home in ancient Egypt.

Never one to gracefully deposit the reader at the beginning of a new story, she starts this one with a bang. Kemni, a young warrior, awakes in a sweat after having a violent dream in which a young man in Minoan Crete was fatally gored while participating in a ritual known as dancing the bulls. Prince Gebu, Kemni's comrade in arms, insists that he relate the dream to Gebu's father, Pharaoh Ahmose, who rules Upper Egypt. The dream is interpreted to mean that the pharaoh should form an alliance with the Cretans to drive out the Asians, known as the Shepherd Kings, who have ruled Lower Egypt for a hundred years, and that Kemni himself should act as an emissary.

After arriving in Crete, Kemni spends his nights in wanton pleasure, his partners being strikingly beautiful young priestesses who are highly skilled in the sexual arts. Despite these distractions, Kemni becomes frustrated at not being allowed to meet with the Cretan king to propose the alliance that his master is counting on him to effect.

Soon Kemni gets to see the kind of dance he dreamed about, which involves a live bull, who might or might not gore the dancers who taunt and tease it. "There were two maidens and a youth," Tarr writes, "somewhat pale . . . and intent on their dancing. First they tempted and tormented the bull, to lure him out of his gate. And when he had come, slowly, dubiously perhaps, they began the dance proper, the leap and spin and somersault over those long curved horns." That day Kemni's dream is fulfilled: A young male dancer is killed by a bull--a sacrificial victim whose death the court watches with "a little of grief, but much more of exaltation."

Tarr has once again created a powerful female character: Ariana, princess of Crete, with the brains to match her beauty. She goes to Egypt as both a second wife to the pharaoh and a military instructor, introducing new techniques of fighting to selected troops. Her strength of character will remind the reader of Melisende, the heroine of Tarr's "Queen of Swords."

As this training goes forward, a dissident group of minor princes and aristocrats opposes any change in the status quo for fear of losing position and privilege. The day of judgment arrives for the Asians as Ahmose and his Cretan allies commence their drive into Lower Egypt. Tarr brings all her research skills to the fore as she dramatically describes the final battle, which takes place on land and water, in a devastating storm that creates shock waves that assail both sides. "The Shepherd Kings" has more excitement, color and spectacle, undiluted sex, intrigue and adventure than one ordinarily finds in several novels by less talented storytellers.

Brian Jacomb, who writes frequently about historical fiction.