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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The Age of Ra" by James Lovegrove (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official James Lovegrove Website
Order "The Age of Ra" HERE(US) and HERE(Europe/Overseas)

INTRODUCTION: While James Lovegrove is well known for his diverse work inclining more toward horror and fantasy with a foray in YA territory too, I was very excited when I heard he will publish a mil-sf novel with a twist. "Age of Ra" became an asap book and when I got a pdf review copy courtesy of the wonderful people at Solaris, I read it immediately and it exceeded my expectations.

One thing that I would like to mention is that the blurb of the book, while factually true, is misleading so you may not get the book you expect, but a different and for me much more interesting novel.

OVERVIEW: In the 19th century the Egyptian explorations of Western archaeologists which started in earnest after Napoleon's campaign, brought an
unique, fascinating and extraordinarily rich civilization to life for the whole world, so much so that a lot of stuff related to it became embedded in our day to day language and culture.

But what if the Egyptian Gods - as well as the Gods of other cultures for that matter - were real, super-powerful beings whose link with our material Earth-bound life is based on people worshiping them? The more people worshiping a particular set of Gods, or a God, the more powerful the influence of those Gods on Earth becomes.

This in a nutshell is the premise of "The Age of Ra" and as the title implies, after the 19th century "rediscovery", the Egyptian Gods defeated all the others and divided the Earth in spheres of influence with only Egypt proper left "independent" as too important for any one God to dominate.

So Europe belongs to Osiris and Isis, the US to their son Horus, Asia to Set, Africa to Nephthys and Japan to Anubis among the major gods. Ra abdicated responsibility a while ago and now wanders the Earth and the Heavens with his mythical companions, while the First Family is mired in pleasure after ensuring their supremacy so the grandchildren and their children "rule" the Earth.

But as we know from mythology they do not form quite a happy family, with such matters like Seth killing Osiris and cutting him into small pieces, Osiris seducing (or being seduced) by Nephthys and in consequence Anubis' parentage being debated, so on Earth as in Heavens, Europe is allied with the US like parents and son, Asia is allied with Africa like husband and wife, but Set mistrusts Nephthys too, while Japan sort of stands aloof with its famous "death pilots" as befits followers of the underworld God. There is progress but there is continuous war too and Ra tiring of strife tries to engineer peace.

In the meantime on Earth, David Westwynter is a special operation officer in His Pharaonic Majesty Service on a covert mission in Arabia that goes wrong. A golden boy and scion of the famous game manufacturing company founded by his grandfather to capitalise on the immense popularity of Senet once the Egyptian Pantheon won, David has always been the protector of his rebellious younger brother Steven while his rich parents washed their hands of him. When Steven enrolled in the Navy and died in an Aegean battle, David finally rebels too and joins the Army as a grunt, though he soon rises to be an officer.

Egypt as an "independent" country does not fare that well since there are warlords in the Upper Egypt while the government in Cairo has little more than nominal control outside its immediate environs. However in recent years a masked stranger called The Lightbringer who is rumored to have mysterious powers arrived in Upper Egypt and managed to unify the warlords in the name of "freedom". One of his main aides is Zafirah, a fierce woman of the desert whose father was a famous warlord who died in battle.

"The Age of Ra" stands at about 450 pages with two main threads. The Earth one is narrated in third person from David's POV and takes place in the present of the novel with back-story recollections sprinkled throughout. While ostensibly a military-sf adventure this thread is about much, much more. The Heavenly thread follows Ra's quest for peace and the squabbles of the Pantheon and is just superb, the novel being worth to be read if only for that.

The ending is great and brings this excellent novel to a satisfying closure while from what I understand similar novels but centered on different sets of Gods - so
presumably taking place in other alt-Earths - are planned and I would love to read them.

From the first several pages:

"David returned the salute. “Lieutenant David Westwynter of His Pharaonic Majesty’s Second Paratroop Regiment, stationed on Cyprus.”

“By the light of Khons we have met…” said Wilkins.

“… by the wisdom of Thoth may we assist one
another,” David said, completing the password sequence."

we encounter both the military setting and its twist so we think we have an inkling about what's going on. Well I have to say that while "The Age of Ra" has armies, an officer as main character, strange and familiar weapons ("ba powered tanks", where "ba" is the godly motive-power that depends on Ra, so on the sun), battles, action, intrigue and even not so veiled allusions to our times - the US Pastor-President Wilkins and his "pithy" aphorisms have a definite resemblance to our recent former one's well documented cliches - the novel has so much stuff packed even in its Earth thread that it transcends its mil-sf sub-genre.

There is mythology, "Englishness", philosophy, friendship and family and what are our duties to both as opposed to society's demands and how do we reconcile such when in conflict?

While David starts as a sort of an enigma and he grows a lot on us, he remains a "quiet" main lead since The Lightbringer and his story steal the show from the moment we encounter him.

Zafirah is more of a standard character - the young woman with a drive that becomes a warrior and leader of men - but she has some unexpected depth and her relationship with both the main leads is very well done too.

And then of course there is the Heavenly thread and there the author just shines with larger than life and memorable characters in all the major Gods above and their doings. While there are some hints about their powers and reach, Mr. Lovegrove - wisely in my opinion - does not try to explain everything and bring the novel within pure rationalism with alien super-beings, so in that sense the book is partly a fantasy too. Not that it matters since however you label it, it is still great stuff.

Mr. Lovegrove is one of the best writers out there as style goes and he could easily write literary stuff, though maybe that's why his genre novels are quirky and not that well known, but I hope "The Age of Ra" and the planned related novels will remedy that and bring him well deserved acclaim.

Highly, highly recommended, "The Age of Ra" has been a big positive surprise for 09
with the caveat above not to expect a straight mil-sf with valiant rebels going to fight against dastardly opressors, though it has some of that too, but something subtler and more complex which does not allow an easy one-line description.


Patrick said...

Is this the first in a series? Will the series survive whatever happens to Solaris in 2010?

Liviu said...

Ra is a standalone with a clear ending but part of a planned "age of - pick your set of Gods - " series, next being the Olympians, set in various alt-Earth where that given set of Gods dominate. At least this is my understanding.

This is one set of novels that have potential to continue if Solaris is not bought because they are not sequels which publishers avoid when the previous volumes have been published somewhere else

Fabio Fernandes said...

I must admit I wasn´t interested in reading this novel - until now. Liviu´s reviews are always enlightening. Thank you! :-)

Daniel B. said...

Read it...very underwhelmed. Disappointing.

Christoph Weber said...

Liked it a lot, nice to read, nice fantasy setting.

sjhigbee said...

I also enjoyed the book and thought it gave an interesting spin on what could have been a fairly run of the mill adventure.

Enjoyable and informative review, by the way!

Liviu said...

thank you for your kind words

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