Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Age of Ra

This series was a recommendation from a rather bloodthirsty friend we'll call Starkiller. He evidently preferred The Age of Odin, which is later in the series, but I decided to start at the beginning. Odds are you'll get a review of Odin's volume next year, since the books aren't strictly sequels and I'm intrigued by the worldbuilding.



Rating: 2.5 stars
Length: Moderate (443 pages)
Publication: July 28, 2009 from Solaris
Premise: David Westwinter is a British solider living in a world where the Egyptian pantheon of gods has killed off all the rival powers and divided the earth up among themselves for areas of influence. They demand that their followers worship them and have wars in their name, so humans are doomed to eternal war under their orders. David has never known another life until his men are killed and he finds himself in Freegypt, where the Lightbringer is gathering followers to try to overthrow the warring gods.
Warnings: incest between adults, mention of past incestuous rape (son to mother), one brief and non-graphic incident of an adult raping a child, gore
Recommendation: If you're really into the Egyptian pantheon of gods and/or military fiction, this one isn't a bad bet, but it doesn't deliver quite as satisfyingly on the premise as it could and I spent half the books wanting to slap the characters around.

Fair warning that I'm trying to dodge around a major spoiler that influences mostly the second half of this review, and will be dropping some fairly broad hints about another. If you want to be surprised, I'd recommend stopping before the red pen kicks off.

What gives this one the feeling of being its own world: 

James Lovegrove excels at pulling in little details that emphasize how thoroughly the Egyptian gods have woven themselves into the lives of their followers. For example, the British fusion bomb weaponry isn't based on science, but rather on the breaking of a barrier that holds the divine energies of Isis and Osiris apart. When they touch each other, the resultant explosion is devastating to anything nearby. All the social markers of high class are still there, but with added aspects: the truly wealthy pay the priests to make a formal family cartouche, and David Westwinter's own family is rich from patenting and selling senet boards, a formal packaging of a traditional Egyptian game. Soldiers in the service of Isis and Osiris fight first with ba lances charged with divine blessings from priests and then use a traditional crook and flail in hand-to-hand combat. When gods are so essential to war and to guiding the nations that serve them, it's impossible to be anything but a firm believer unless you want to be ostracized or persecuted. The sole stronghold against belief is Freegypt, which lies between several hostile powers and doesn't follow any particular pantheon.

The gods themselves can be childish and petty, but one of them points out that they're flawed and occasionally terrible because they're the creation of humans, who are flawed themselves. Centuries can pass by while they nurture old grudges and refuse to cooperate, driving their nations against each other and only holding truces when Ra commands it of them. On one level it can be ridiculous to see the way they treat each other, or the way they carp about having artificial limbs (yes, Osiris's mythological wooden penis makes an appearance, and as a minor plot point to boot). When Lovegrove gets the feeling of gods, though, he really nails it: Ra sees Nephthys crying and has a vivid impression of rivers flooding. When he sees Nut, goddess of the sky, stretching, "briefly she is a firmament, the glittering heavens, spreading vast and forever." It's a good reminder that their humanoid forms are shorthand for deep and ancient wells of power, and that their grudges are the result of war and mutilation and betrayal-- they may be petty, but they're not angry at each other without cause.

Anubis is particularly well-drawn, as are his followers. He rules Iaru, the land of the dead where they harvest reeds for all eternity, and isn't generally concerned with petty squabbles because all of the worshipers of the other gods will come to him eventually. His earthly area of influence is Japan and the other Pacific islands, which mostly steer clear of larger conflicts. Other nations look at the suicide rate to determine how happy the Anubians are feeling, since the greatest aim of their lives is to join their lord in the underworld. A few military Anubians end up deserting to the Lightbringer and explain that they have done so because his cause is truly hopeless and in joining him they will  be sure to die "in the vainest and most fatalistic of circumstances." They'll fight honorably, but in the end they want to throw their lives away as an expression of reverence for Anubis. It's just similar-but-different enough from samurai ideals to blend well, though I would have liked to know exactly when in history the Egyptian takeover happened, since the patterns of alliance and tension and culture throughout the regions is similar enough to the contemporary world that I was a touch disappointed.

By far the most intriguing aspect of the plot is the Lightbringer's secular revolution. He is tired of the gods shoving their followers into pointless wars for glory and the power of worship, and he wants to free the whole world of their influence. David points out to him that without the gods people would just fight over money, territory, and ideology; even knowing that that's true from a cursory glance at our own world, the hope of being free to make a choice resonates. No one has been able to break free, but it they do after so long in divine shackles, they might make different choices, and better ones. The revolution's methods can be unclear, since they alternately seem to be trying to kill minor gods by destroying their places of worship and demonstrating to the world that the gods can be outsmarted and outfought on a worldly plane. David's crises of faith are often moving, since he was raised to believe in Isis and Osiris and still turns to them for guidance after he's tried to turn his back on them and killed some of their followers.

Mixed feelings: 

This seems to have a thin chocolate shell of military fiction with a cream center of science fiction and fantasy elements. When we're shown the battles with mummies and followers of other gods, they're interesting, and Lovegrove does a god job discussing resources and general planning strategy. The big battle, unfortunately, started to seem like a wash after the opening salvos. At first there was a lot about tank positioning and guerilla warfare, use of air support and national stature if one group conquers before their reinforcements get there, but after that it's just a vague handwave of "and then they retreated up the narrow places in the hill and did a good job holding back the larger force because terrain and urban fighting or whatever" This is the point where Lovegrove is setting up a few big things to happen, both with the humans and in the divine realm, and the military elements suffer for it.

The red pen: 

You may have noticed that I barely mentioned the characters, and there's a reason for that: to wit, that a box of cornflakes has more personality than half of them do. The worst offender by far is Zafirah, who rescues/captures David when he's wandering in the desert. He's deeply attracted to her before they've had more than a few conversations, she's making eyes back at him, and then they have a long conversation about their dead family members and almost make out. There is no chemistry between them at all and no real reason for them to be attracted besides that it makes good drama later on. I really wanted to like Zafirah, since she's an accomplished guerilla commander who doesn't seem to take nonsense from anyone, but her dialogue and history tend to show up in big exposition crates that have "plot moves here" stenciled on the side. Their proto-relationship is deeply uninteresting in just about every way and has all the passionate charge of that cereal box I mentioned. Emotions as a whole in this book are more told than shown, but it's kind of awful between these two.

And now we get into a spoiler: David reunites with his younger brother Steven in the Lightbringer camp after thinking that he'd been killed in action in the Navy five years ago. This is promising, since it gives them the chance to talk about why David joined the military in the wake of Steven's supposed death, but it soon degenerates into brother angst. This sort of thing can be interesting sometimes, but it swings between "he's my little brother and I love him and have to protect him" and "he's just as selfish and careless as he always was and he's plotting something evil while trying to keep me away from Zafirah because he wants her for himself." There's very little middle ground there, and the issues are frequently of the variety that could be resolved with two stinking minutes of honest and direct conversation. The way their relationship is poised between love and violence works, but all of the agonizing about it tends to take the edge off.

The agonizing is part of a larger issue with fluff and weird inclusion of details. The same ground is covered over and over again with slight variations, both from a planning perspective and an emotional perspective. Exposition about characters who are going to die in two pages, lots of rehashing why the gods are angry at each other, and then one weird passage about a Bedouin uncle who rapes his crying nephews in the tent where all the men (including David) are sleeping. It's a bizarre detail to include, since David makes a crack to himself about how it's like boarding school and then....doesn't do anything to stop the attacker, not even make noise to wake up the other men. He ends up killing the man when the camp comes under attack, with the enthusiastic assistance of two of the young victims, and it comes off as a cheap excuse to make himself look good without helping in the actual moment of crisis. The stuff with the gods can be clunky; their first joint chapter, "Ra," would be more aptly called "here are some stereotypical conversations about who we are and why we're mad at each other." Lovegrove did his research about the Egyptian pantheon, but he does a lot of paraphrasing the weirder myths to demonstrate how incestuous and weird these gods are without engaging with the way emotions can intensify or diminish over time

The biggest problem with the book is the predictability. The Lightbringer wears a mask to cover his scarring, but one of the outlines looks like a rounded edge of a design. He also lays the voice-whammy on David in commanding him to do something and the words are digging deep into David's head. When Ra tries to look at the Lightbringer, he can't see any details or any past. The hints that the Lightbringer is working for a god are manifold and anvil-sized, and then it's exactly the god you think it is. I came up with a number of really lively conspiracy theories, including an elegant idea about Ra playing the long game to outmaneuver all the others in his quest to bring peace between thembecause the obvious candidate was so obvious that it hurt, but no, it was about as complicated as the "Loki did it" flowchart. That god's motivations aren't even interesting, they're just part of the same incestuous soap opera grudge match that these gods keep going because there's nothing good on TV or something. It's the anti-twist ending, coming together in a way that's surprising only because you were sure that the author was going to use these hijinks to cover new ground or pull a clever reversal. It's hard to cover these without getting into spoilers, but more or less every time you have a guess about what the plot twist is going to be, you're right.

All in all, The Age of Ra is fun, but I wanted it to be so much better than it was. It has great ideas and strong worldbuilding, but the characters who inhabit that world-- not to mention the gods who rule it-- often come across as either cardboard or ridiculous. I'll be giving Lovegrove another try next year, but this one boils down to "there is absolutely no way I should be bored with a concept this cool."


Prospects: This is the first book of Lovegrove's Pantheon series. The most recent is The Age of Aztec, which came out in March.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Gaiman's American Gods does a better job of working with the ebb and flow of power through the belief of worshipers than this one does, and it also has a lighter touch with the prose.
~Pratchett's Small Gods does an absolutely fabulous job of the same thing, as does Hogfather-- he's great at showing how beliefs warp life and then the fabric of reality. 

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