Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Age Of Ra

I'm someone who picks up books 50% on their covers, 25% on the back story and 25% on its reviews. And I have to say The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove was unique. Chose it partly 'cause of the cover and partly cause of the title; I'm a sucker for Mythology and anything related with mythology is good enough for me and then their was the added bonus of the story being of a sci-fi-military-utopia vs. dystopia centered story, my favourite genre. So read on....

Here is how the summary of the book goes like:

The Ancient Egyptian gods have defeated all the other pantheons and claimed dominion over the earth, dividing it into warring factions. Lt. David Westwynter, a British soldier, stumbles into Freegypt, the only place to have remained independent of the gods- influence. There, he encounters the followers of a humanist leader known as the Lightbringer, who has vowed to rid mankind of the shackles of divine oppression. As the world heads towards an apocalyptic battle, there is far more to this freedom fighter than it seems...

There is an ancient belief that pretty much explains the story of The Age Of Ra; "As above, so below" from the alchemical text, The Emerald Tablet. For the follower of ancient hermeticism this expression holds the key to all the mysteries of the universe. For the follower of ancient hermeticism this expression holds the key to all the mysteries of the universe. Hermes Trismegistus, the author of The Emerald Tablet, saw it as a key to open the magic inherent in the world. The ultimate meaning of the adage is that the macrocosmos is mirrored in the microcosmos and that God is the same as man.

Mr. Lovegrove clearly uses this idea in his tightly crafted novel where he creates two worlds. Earth far in the future, where the Egyptian Pantheon have defeated all other gods and divided the earth into warring factions, each aligned with a god from the pantheon; and the pantheon itself, with all its petty struggles and jealousies.

Primarily divided into the two level - the divine level and the Earth(the above and below). If it is to be differentiated more specifically then it tells four tales with four parallel arcs within this format. First, the story of the gods and their movement in the pantheon. Second, the personal tale of the godly struggle between Set, Osiris, Isis and Nephthys. Third, the war between the worldly factions and their struggle for dominance. And finally the personal struggle between Lieutenant David Westwynter, a British soldier, and his younger brother Steven.

It is ultimately all about theocracy, fratricide and sibling rivalry, both on earth and in heaven.
Well if you look closely at any mythology around the world it is present, the only difference between the various pantheons is that they named differently as according to the regions from where they originate from.

So after the Earth is divided among the Gods and Goddesses 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.

Meanwhile 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.

I confess the book at first felt a bit slow and confusing to me since i don't have much patience with military-centric novels but it started to get much more interesting as i leaved through the pages but was starting to see the bigger picture. 

Lovegrove is a good writer and he immediately establishes the rules. The novel is told from the point of view of David Westwynter; it is a tightly-constructed narrative with a no-nonsense prose style. The British commandos are an elite fighting group and we are on solid military science ground here, following the team to the rendezvous point. However, Lovegrove quickly lets us know that he is not writing a standard military science fiction novel. Our first clue is that the men carry Ba weapons and the battle locations are ancient locations, re-animated to a future context. And by the end of the chapter, the mummies arrive. Even though Lovegrove clearly employs elements of myth, horror, and science fiction, the novel doesn't feel like a post-modernist junk with him hurling new words and terms at us.

Text from wikipedia : The Ancient Egyptians believed that a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib. In addition to these components of the soul there was the human body (called the ha, occasionally a plural haw, meaning approximately sum of bodily parts). The other souls were aakhu, khaibut, and khat.
The 'Ba' (b3) is in some regards the closest to the contemporary Western religious notion of a soul, but it also was everything that makes an individual unique, similar to the notion of 'personality'. (In this sense, inanimate objects could also have a 'Ba', a unique character, and indeed Old Kingdom pyramids often were called the 'Ba' of their owner). Like a soul, the 'Ba' is an aspect of a person that the Egyptians believed would live after the body died, and it is sometimes depicted as a human-headed bird flying out of the tomb to join with the 'Ka' in the afterlife.

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.

To Lovegrove's credit, The Age of Ra offers a fast-paced, action-packed story which benefits from its setting in an alternate timeline in a number of ways. One is that its background is more conducive to this sort of adventure than the increasingly implausible scenarios on which more "realistic" writers in this vein have relied since the end of the Cold War. Another is that, compared with the diffuse storytelling that characterizes most of that genre, Lovegrove's greater freedom in setting up the situation enables him to keep the focus on his central figures.

It helps, too, that the material is spiced with exotic speculative touches, including the interweaving of the demented intrigues, vendettas, and powers of the Egyptian gods in with the terrestrial action. Additionally, even if Age of Ra is less ambitious than some of the works mentioned above, Lovegrove's book still touches on its fair share of Big Themes (not the least of them, the problem posed by a messianic figure playing freedom fighter) while presenting a good many twists in the obvious course of things, making it something other than a simple tale of heroic rebels confronting an intolerable tyranny against impossible odds.

Readers familiar with much ancient mythology can hardly object to the daytime talk-show trashiness of his gods as uncharacteristic of such beings (indeed, Lovegrove's bluntness about their comedic-like repugnance refreshingly reflects the myths as these must appear to objective modern eyes), but that still leaves a large part of the story hanging on the conflicts of a fairly shallow bunch.

Additionally, conducive as the broad premise is to this type of adventure, Lovegrove's world-building also struck me as surprisingly thin in places. Westwynter's desert adventures do not show much of the wider world, but his memories, and such details as the reader can gather from his present, give an impression of a slightly skewed modernity overlaid with ancient Egyptian images, symbols, and tropes rather than the more thoroughly transformed global culture one might expect to see. Westwynter's upper-class, public school upbringing, for instance, seems to be pretty much what it would have been in our world, except that the Anglican clergy who would have seen to the spiritual side of his education speak of Osiris instead of Christ. Even the geopolitics of this world echo our own in significant ways, as in the use of an Anglo-American covert action in the Middle East in the opening.

However, such similarities seem reasonable enough given the late date at which the world changed over to the worship of the Egyptian gods—and in any event, an alternate history does not have to be convincing as a historical counterfactual to be effective. In fact, the similarities are the point in many instances, Lovegrove emphasizing this by playing off of them in interesting ways, as in his presenting secularism's last bastion not in the West, but in the Arab Middle East, or the thinly veiled commentary that is his depiction of American "Pastor-President Wilkins."

Where the gods are concerned, Lovegrove's depiction of them in their element—Ra on his boat, Anubis in the underworld—has its poetic moments in its fusion of fantasy and science. However, the reader is given little sense of how they coexisted with other deities in a common cosmology, or what this means for their role in the creation of the universe that every mythical pantheon claims as entirely its own work. At the same time, there is virtually no explanation as to why this particular group of gods and goddesses, the weaknesses and disunity of which are all too apparent, managed not only to defeat all of their rivals, but to fully eradicate them from the cosmos after being marginalized for so long. After all, Lovegrove's tale makes quite clear what happens to deities who do not have the benefit of vast numbers of devoted worshippers. 

I'm sure you all remember the strategy based game "Age of Mythology" - well this felt just the same but in a modern way.

This is a unique story in a unique setting. The characters are interesting and the novel reads fast and furious. However, I felt that the climax and ending of the book were a bit flat — too many things fit entirely too well for how things were worked out. I was also able to predict a good bit of the secrets revealed to the reader well in advance. I would not recommend this book for younger readers as there are a few sexually explicit scenes.


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