Monday, December 9, 2013

A Pyramid Built of Problems

The Age of Ra
by James Lovegrove
Published by Solaris
1 Out of 5 Stars


See that cover? That is a kick ass cover. So the next time you're in a bookstore, stop and gaze upon its beauty--then return the book to the shelf and slowly back away because that moment, the moment where you gaze upon that glorious golden image of Ra and then wonder at the contradictory image of a modern day soldier in front of a battlefield and think WTF--that's as good as it's going to get, baby.

I have put off reviewing this for days because reviewing it seems cruel, like kicking a three legged puppy for not being able to run fast enough. I knew that I was in deep suck by page 20, so it's my fault that I kept reading. And I know, I know--there will be those who say, why did you keep reading if you hated the book so much? A) I bought it, so I felt a misguided need to get my money's worth, B) this is my busy time of year, so reading a crappy book almost ensured I would more readily turn my attention to grading semester finals, and C) I can't count the number of times I have despised a book right up until the very end and something clicked, the other shoe dropped, all was revealed and, hallelujah, it's a literary miracle--the book was amazing! There were no miracles this time. I clapped my hands and really believed, but Tinkerbell never came back to life. This sucker was DOA and should have come with a DNR. Damn, I kicked the three legged dog, didn't I?

Age of Ra has an interesting premise. The gods of old are real, they go to battle for dominion over man, the Pantheon of Egypt wins by destroying all other gods. This idea isn't entirely new, but usually these types of books focus on Greek and Roman mythology. The Egyptian slant seemed promising. But this type of book has been done better by Gaiman's American Gods or even Max Gladstone's created mythology in the Craft Sequence books Three Parts Dead and Two Serpents Rise. There are several issues:

1. All nations now worship Egyptian deities, but align themselves with different gods (some Asian countries worship Anubis, England worships Osiris, South America worships Horus--you get the idea). These countries now choose their allies and their enemies based upon which gods their chosen deity considers friends and enemies. The god also blesses his or her people with his divine power, or ba, as a power source to charge weapons and vehicles (but, don't worry, if your god forgets to send you some of his mojo, there's still gasoline). This sums up all the interaction the gods have with their people; much of the book consists of military battles that simply throw the gods' names around but really don't rely upon the gods at all. So all that amazing gods-among-men anticipation I had built up was a serious letdown.

2. The Egyptian gods defeated all other gods 100 years ago, yet the novel is set in what seems to be roughly the present day. Within a century and in the face of the knowledge that the gods are real, one would think the Egyptian culture and mindset would have radically changed society and redrawn the map. Nope. Apparently not. We still have Russia, Japan, China, and all the other countries and societies speaking and acting as they always have. 

3. The integration of Egyptian culture into present day is unimaginative and lazy at best. We still have the United States, but its president is now known as the Pastor President. We still have Britain, but its head of state is now His Pharaonic Majesty. We still have Mercedes Benz, but it's now known as the Mercedes Lotus. We still have tanks, but they're known as Scarabs. The world-building is weak.

4. It's also laughable that, in a world that still has high tech weaponry and alternate fuel sources, our hero enters combat with a crook and flail. Or that mummies so clueless they make zombies look like the life of the party are sent into battle against tanks and artillery. Or that high priests use wooden birds to carry their consciousness for reconnaissance missions, but, if that fails, they send out the planes we would normally use for reconnaissance. Because a high priest in a trance forever is always preferable to the intel a plane could send back in a fraction of the time. The inclusion of modern technology in the book renders the Ancient Egyptian inspired tech moot and useless by comparison.

5. Cardboard, stereotyped characters so one-dimensional that they make the Kardashians seem human; an obligatory will-they-won't-they romance with less passion than a Liza Minnelli marriage; plot twists so obvious they practically nudge you ("You'll be so surprised! You'll never guess what's going to happen! Here it comes, here it comes! Did it get ya?").

6. The best part of the book? The gods. One can tell that Lovegrove really did his research here and he's smart enough to realize that the gods have to adapt and change somewhat to move the plot forward. Holding them to their archetypal roles would have added little interest whatsoever. As Ra begins to develop a consciousness outside of his divine role and manipulate the Pantheon to avert disaster, it's easy to think something might be salvaged. However, the god chapters are too few and far between (and ultimately anticlimactic) to add much to the narrative. 

There was an idea here, somewhere beneath all the problems, but it never delivers on the promise presented by that beautiful cover.

2 comments:

  1. I definitely enjoyed it a bit more than you, but still not enough to continue with the series.

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    1. I've heard that the second book is much better than the first, but trying it is a risk I'm just not willing to take!

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