In James Lovegrove's The Age of Ra the archaeological investigations of Egypt in the early twentieth century by Howard Carter and his contemporaries led to a revival in the worship of the Egyptian gods around the world. As it turned out, those gods were real all along, and in a short time they swept aside the world's other, equally real, gods, along with the religions they cultivated, including the Abrahamic and "Dharmic" faiths to which most of the world was adhering at the time.
In the years that followed this religious transformation, the world split into a small number of theocracies devoted to various members of the pantheon. Europe is devoted to husband and wife deities Osiris and Isis; North America to Horus and South America to "Horus's children" (no explicit connection being made to any one deity); Japan, along with an imperial domain in the western Pacific that includes the Malay archipelago and Australia, devoted to Anubis; the remainder of mainland Asia, including a Russia filling its pre-1917 borders, patronized by Set; and Africa and the Middle East worshipping Set's wife, Nephythys; while Ra rules over all his children. These superstates are constantly squabbling and frequently at war with one another, a situation encouraged and abetted by those gods, because the faith and bloodshed that go with it help sustain their existences and powers, and also as an extension of a rancorous family life which, like that of their better-known Greek counterparts, is replete with incest, adultery, violence, intrigue, jealousy, and general depravity.
At the outset of the story British paratrooper David Westwynter is serving in one of those religious wars, leading his unit in a covert operation near Petra. The mission goes badly, however, and after a series of misadventures he ends up in Egypt, now styled "Freegypt," reflecting its status as the only place outside those conflicts—the gods having "by mutual agreement" treated the scene where their worship originated as neutral ground, off-limits to their games. In the absence of those gods, and of interference from all their followers, the country emerged as the world's only secular polity, an "ignorant, backwater republic" of no account in the view of most, a paradise for free thought for others, and for a mysterious, charismatic figure known as the "Lightbringer," a logical starting point for a revolt against those gods and their priesthoods, the campaign against which is about to begin when Westwynter finds himself in Luxor.
Those acquainted with much science fiction are likely to recognize that the novel's central concept—"What if the gods of ancient mythology were real?"—is not a new one, having been attempted innumerable times over the years, notably by Robert Zelazny in Lord of Light (1967), and Neil Gaiman in American Gods (2001). Additionally, Lovegrove's treatment is not as unconventional as one might expect from the prominent cover endorsement of him as a twenty-first century J. G. Ballard by The Bookseller. This quote actually refers to earlier, more satiric Lovegrove novels, such as Days (1997). The mythologically themed military action-adventure of Age of Ra represents a very different direction, not only from the other writers mentioned here, but for Lovegrove as well (one he continues in for at least two more novels, namely Age of Zeus, released at the end of March, and Age of Odin, coming out later this year).
To Lovegrove's credit, 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.
Nonetheless, there are a great many shortcomings in the execution. While Westwynter is a suitably sketched (if stock) protagonist, and Ra's weariness come through quite effectively, the characterizations are uneven overall. Given her role in the story, Zafirah is underdeveloped (even while being by far the most developed of the Freegyptians), a point which works against the tension that the love triangle in which she and Westwynter are a part should have built. 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 Jerry Springer-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."
Still, not every detail works in quite this way. Lovegrove opts for pulpy spectacle rather than gritty realism or minute technical and tactical detail in his battle sequences, so that while lucid and written with punch, action movie-style implausibility abounds, as do a few anachronisms, like the World War I-style dreadnoughts seen shooting it out ship to ship in the "Battle of the Aegean"—in the same military context as aircraft carriers, fighter jets and tactical nuclear weapons. This is only compounded by a few of Lovegrove's inventions, like the mummy soldiers, so unwieldy they hardly seem worth the bother.
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.)
Still, irksome as these problems can be, they should be kept in perspective, given not just the intrinsic challenges of Lovegrove's premise, but also the novel's approach to the material through this particular mix of pulp and ideas. Despite the imperfections in Lovegrove's realization of some of his concepts, Age of Ra also succeeds in engaging and entertaining when taken on those terms.
Nader Elhefnawy has taught literature at several colleges, including the University of Miami. He reviews and writes about science fiction for several publications, and on his blog, Raritania.