Age of Ra by James Lovegrove. Book review

raAGE OF RA by James Lovegrove,

Solaris, paperback, £7.99,

Reviewed by Richard Webb

The setting is an alternate modern-day world, in which the existence of ancient gods of is undisputed: their existence is a fact. The Gods have waged a war and those of the Egyptian pantheon were victorious and rule the heavens, fighting amongst themselves for dominion over the world of humankind. Cleric-politicians claiming direct communication with deities hold sway over international affairs; tensions boil over into military conflicts… everywhere except Egypt itself, which the gods have decreed a No God’s Land, hence its moniker Freegypt. However, gods do not always keep their promises and a religious war comes to Freegypt, where enigmatic humanist leader The Lightbringer is challenging The Gods. Into this scenario is thrust soldier Lt. David Westwynter, through whose PoV the tale unfolds.

The inclination to worship The Gods or not provides the story with its fuel. This set up an intriguing premise which is not explored: what happened to other religions and their deities? Would their followers be destroyed too or would worship continue in underground cults/sects? Would there be a new modern-day pharaoh chosen by the Egyptian Gods? Lovegrove chooses not to engage in more philosophical issues, preferring to hold to the action.

The world is confidently depicted though it is sketched rather than painted in detail. The rousing opening with its ‘Stargate-esque’ feel pulled me in, and it was in the scenes of military engagement that Lovegrove excelled, injecting a page-turning urgency. But this lightness of touch in the action scenes did not serve as well when more emotional heft was required so the major relationships in the book lacked complexity. This also came through in the easy willingness of the Freegyptian people to follow into war (with The Gods!) a man in a mask…but perhaps expecting verité in such a rambunctious setting is missing the point.

Westwynter should carry the reader’s skepticism toward events but at times he is a little underwritten – an archetypal ‘thinking soldier’ with no individual quirks: smart, but not too smart, (he should have guessed the ‘twist’ far sooner than he did); rigid in his rule-observance; conscious of his family’s reputation, and willing to throw his life into a cause. That said, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with Westwynter: his motivations have logic even if they are telegraphed and he has as much character definition as most blockbuster lead characters have; after all, this is the territory we are in here.

The lead female character Zafirah was similarly underwhelming. Whilst I commend the author for eschewing ‘hot-pants kick-ass’ clichés, she strayed a little towards a different sort of cliché: hot-headed, passionate, exotic, tough-but-vulnerable. This made her romance with David — particularly after her obligatory initial coolness towards him – less than compelling.

There are interludes from the PoV of the Egyptian god-father Ra, depicting the intrigues of the pantheon. This lent the book a more epic context whilst at the same time giving it the feel of a soap-opera amongst the not-so divine … which I suspect was entirely the point. These sections have a folkloric feel: the narrative voice is effective in its simplicity, but the flip-side is that there is little nuance in the depiction of The Gods and their inter-relationships. Perhaps that is the point — gods are one-dimensional beings, more symbolic of an aspect of humankind’s singular traits than sharing our multi-trait complexity (eg. The god of war has a bad temper). That is fine, but if so, the ‘gods are squabbling children’ insight might not be enough to sustain interest in the other books by Lovegrove in this series (‘Age of Aztec’, ‘Age of Zeus’.)

Whilst the scenes of The Gods were integral, they became intrusions more than enhancements as the climax of the main story built. The intrigues of both the divine and empirical worlds were over-simplistic but for the most part this was glossed over by the verve of the storytelling. The notion of ‘real gods’ is a compelling idea, so it is a shame that Lovegrove seems reluctant to explore it further, as if an attempt to do so would result in questions that couldn’t be answered…but perhaps therein lies a more enriching book.

For a quick and mostly engaging read, this serves well, though tends more to the bubblegum end of the fantasy spectrum, at its best when all guns are blazing but less comfortable in the quieter moments.