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Book cover art by Marek Okon.
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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The Age of Ra is a military SF adventure with a divine twist. In the world according to Lovegrove, the gods of ancient Egypt are real, and hold dominion over the Earth in what we are led to understand is some alternate near-present day. They have vanquished the gods of all other religions — which would have made an interesting story in its own right, certainly — and the way things are going now, we'd all have been better off with jealous and vengeful old Jehovah after all. While the cover promises all manner of awesome, the story's overall quality is scattershot, despite many good early scenes.

The Egyptian pantheon constitutes the most profoundly dysfunctional family in all creation. Their personal betrayals and feuds — among them, Set hates Horus and Osiris so much that Set tore the latter's genitals off, and poor Osiris has to endure eternity with a strap-on — in turn propel wars on the Earth, as nations aligned with this or that particular god massacre each other ruthlessly. Poor Ra wrings his holy hands and endures it all like a long-suffering father, which indeed he is. This all seems a petty series of pretexts upon which to hang unending global conflict. But then, nobody can be petty like a god. Just think of the Biblical God and the thing with the bears slaughtering the 42 children, who picked the wrong deity's prophet to laugh at.

But there is one secular nation left on Earth, and it is, ironically, Egypt herself, here called Freegypt. Evidently it was decided by Ra that the nation that was the cradle of all the gods cannot be aligned to only one, and so it's aligned to none. Now a new player in the global conflict has arisen from the heart of Freegypt herself. The Lightbringer is exactly the kind of messianic figure that pops up in stories like this. An enigmatic figure (though he doesn't remain enigmatic for long) in a featureless white mask, the Lightbringer rallies the war-weary and disaffected to his side by preaching liberation from all the gods. He declares war on the pantheon itself, clearly an act of madness, but one that's not unpersuasive in a mad world.

One of these fighters is a deserter from the British armies of Osiris, one Lt. David Westwynter. So that would be "Leftenant" Westwynter to you. David and the Lightbringer share a special bond, which I won't spoil though I'm certain every other review of this novel will, probably because it's a cliché. It's a bond that will have David questioning the Lightbringer's motives and leadership.

There is a theme underlying all of this — delivered with anvilicious nonsubtlety in the final chapter, for anyone who'd dozed off at any time prior — having to do with humanity divesting itself of gods, who only use us and toss us aside like the playthings we are, and walking on its own two feet, head held high, into a new age of reason. That's a theme with which I am most definitely simpatico.

But it doesn't really help Lovegrove's story, which suffers from pedestrian attention to character that leaves everyone feeling just too underdeveloped and superficial to care about. Battle scenes are appropriately bombastic and written with admirable craft, but have no emotional impact. In fact, only two characters, David and the Lightbringer, are really developed to any degree at all. And even in their cases, scenes that would have gone a long way towards fleshing them out are hampered by being told either in flashback or in exposition, instead of being played out as drama. (Actually, there is a reason we don't get the Lightbringer's backstory in better detail, and it involves a twist that's one of the book's few creative moments.) Perhaps Lovegrove's most inane choice is this: in the midst of battle that could literally spell doom for humanity itself, David is mostly angry that the Lightbringer seems to be putting the moves on a woman David likes, the woefully underdeveloped Zafirah. Priorities, leftenant!

The gods fare no better, and some of their scenes, interspersed with the main narrative, border on camp. (And there are a couple of instances where Lovegrove finds himself hanging lampshades all over apparent logical inconsistencies in his storytelling, particularly those that indicate some of Ra's subordinates may be more powerful than he is.) Seriously, when one of them calls another a "conniving, two-timing bitch," it's all you can do not to roll your eyes and hurl the book in the bin. For this sub-Eastenders level of melodrama, fusion bombs are flying on Earth? Well, yes, I can see how humanity would be better off walking away from deities such as these. What's even easier is walking away from books about them.

Followed by The Age of Zeus.