donderdag 13 februari 2014

Reading the 'Age of...' books

So, I've allowed a silence to fall for a couple of months again. I guess I never really felt like writing, especially after the writing extravaganza that was NaNoWriMo, which tired me out on the creative side quite a bit. Trust me when I say that I did feel the occasional pang of guilt for not writing about things like the fact that I started playing League of Legends (got bullied into it by my friends), or that I acquired myself a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and have to admit that I don't see why people hate Windows 8 so badly.

After reading my way through 'Age of Godpunk', though, I suddenly felt the urge to start writing again. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I'm reading again, or the fact that I'm finally attending university again (I only really read while in transit, so I basically only read while I'm going to and from university, so the two really go hand in hand). It doesn't really matter, though, all that matters is the fact that I finally felt like writing again.

I found the 'Age of...' series, as it is written by James Lovegrove, the very first time I entered one of the two American Book Centers we have in the Netherlands. It was while I was waiting for a lecture to start, and the store happened to be across the street from the lecture hall.
I don't really remember what the lecture was about, but it's not really important to the story I want to tell.
In the store I saw three books of the series standing side by side, their covers pointed outwards instead of only the books being arranged side-by-side with the backsides facing out. The titles were 'Age of Ra', 'Age of Zeus', and 'Age of Odin', and I immediately went back to my youth and the hours of time I wasted on 'Age of Mythology' and its expansion, 'The Titans'. I remembered that I enjoyed playing the Norse the most while playing the game, so I picked up 'Age of Odin' first and made myself ready to read it.
Can you imagine my horror when I realized that 'Odin' was actually the third in the series?

Now, I have to admit that it's a little silly of me, but I'm very anal about reading books in the right order. I didn't know that the books could be read completely out of order back then, so I made it a point to put the book down and head back to buy 'Ra' and 'Zeus' as well and to read these two first. I was pretty much committed by then, so I picked up 'Age of Ra' and started reading, this time without putting it down after the first couple of pages.
Now, I'm going to go through the books (which are quite a few by now), and I hate typing 'spoiler warning' or 'spoiler alert' while talking about a book, so consider yourself warned. I won't spoil a lot, but... Yeah, consider yourself warned.

'Age of Ra' was, as I recall, a pretty bleak book that built itself on an interesting concept. Basically, the Egyptian pantheon had had it with the shit of the world roughly hundred years before the story of the book and started to take over. They killed the other gods (ALL of them) and divided the world amongst themselves by countries. The world map as we know it is mostly unchanged, but the technology and people are changed. Church and state are definitely no longer separated, nor are army and state, and the god that rules over a given country can actually send its own power down in a form that can be captured and stored for later usage in weapons and vehicles called 'Ba'.
Now, anyone who knows anything about the Egyptian pantheon knows that its mythology is filled with backstabbing, infighting, incest, and intrigue. This is translated by letting the book alternate between Ra, the Sun God, as he deals with the hijinks of his fellow gods, and David Westwynter, a British soldier. As the tensions between the gods start to build up, it also builds up between the countries that represent the respective gods as the rulers start to be influenced by the gods.
After an establishing fight, though, during which the main story twist is introduced, Wstwynter ends up in 'Freegypt', this world's Egypt, which is, ironically enough, the only state that makes it a point to remain aggressively atheist in a world enthralled by the gods and the knowledge that they are very real. These Freegyptians aren't atheist in the way that they don't believe there are gods, but they are atheists in the way that they actively wish for the gods to pack up and get the hell out of their world.
Which turns out to culminate in a Freegyptian masked man that is actively spurring everyone on to take up arms and deal with the gods, which, to a British soldier, is of course a big problem.
I don't really recall how the story went on after that. It had something to do with the protagonist's brother showing up and there was some kind of tacked-on love story. I do remember letting one of my university friends borrow it, and I got it returned to me with the simple comment of 'that's dark and depressing', which I can't really disagree with.

'Age of Zeus' was, comparatively, a lot brighter and more lighthearted than 'Age of Ra'. When I opened it up, after having enjoyed the world of 'Age of Ra', I was  expecting the same kind of twist but just with the Greek pantheon instead of the Egyptian. That would have meant a lot of collumns and toga's, maybe some old school modern jousting, and a more totalitarian way of ruling the world.
If that had been the case, I don't think it would have been as enjoyable to read as it had been. It would've been pretty dry, to be fair, because the concept had been explored pretty thoroughly in 'Age of Ra'.
In 'Age of Zeus', though, there is a completely different story going around. The gods of the Greek pantheon, together with the monsters of their myths, showed up in the world about ten years before the events of the book. They, much like the Egyptians in 'Ra', were tired of humanity's shit and started to clean up the world, the Chicago way. Everyone that opposed them got killed and criminals were punished in the old Greek style. Rapists got their naughty bits cut off, thieves lost their hands, things like that.
A big point of the story is the fact that, to make an example, the gods destroyed a single town that was opposing them. After that they got pretty much free reign and could do what they wanted, when they wanted. The many monsters spread out over the world in order to enforce order while the gods got drunk and had fun. I recall an early passage about a drunken Hercules running around on a random destruction spree, because he's apparently a very angry drunk.
The protagonist is Samantha Akehurst, a policewoman who gets invited to join a crack commando squad of international badasses that train to run around and take names in powered armor while listening to the names of the Titans and start systematically taking out the Greek monsters and, after that, the gods themselves.
I remember that the story was a lot more character-driven than 'Age of Ra', which was a lot more focused on military combat and skirmishes. There were the twelve commando's and the man that organized them, which meant that there was a lot of character interaction that really helped you to get a feeling for the different characters. As opposed to Westwynter, I actually felt like Akehurst was an actual person that had plenty of faults and plenty of reasons for the things that she does. The other characters, which I don't really remember because it has been a while, all had personality and I remember actually feeling a little crestfallen with every casualty.
What I remember the most fondly was how the group, eventually, dealt with Hermes. The man, who had been fighting the group of power armored badasses with his speed and caduceus, actually grabs one of the group and starts teleporting her around the place. It's described that she basically gets hit in the head with a sledgehammer with every jump, but the 'eyes' of the reader are back at the home base, where the rest of the group can only really listen and view the camera feed, until there is an explosion and the feed turns into static.
You find out later on that the woman that was being teleported around by Hermes had taken a grenade - described to be more like a miniature nuke in power - and pulled the pin, exploding herself together with Hermes.
I had to put the book down after that.
There was a twist that I don't want to spoil, mostly because it puts the actions of some of the major characters in a completely different light, but I know that I thought it was a little weak, afterwards. That was a bit of a shame, though.

After reading through both 'Ra' and 'Zeus', you can probably imagine that I was quite stoked to finally get to read 'Age of Odin'. It had been the original book and, quite frankly, it had been staring at me for a while from my book shelf for a while by then. Quite literally, as you can probably imagine from the book cover up there. By then, I had realized that the books didn't have to be read in order, but I wasn't sorry for buying the other two books, because they had been pretty good reads.
This meant that the bar had been placed pretty high for 'Age of Odin', mostly because I was (and still am) a sucker for military fiction and both 'Age of Ra' and 'Age of Zeus' had provided me with that plentiful.
The book started off pretty roughly, because it was the first of three books to be written from the first person perspective. I know I write my own stories from a third person perspective that is pretty much fixed on the back of the protagonist, which means the reader still doesn't know more than the protagonist knows and is, quite frankly, basically the same, but for some reason the use of the word 'I' outside of the spoken text doesn't sit well with me.
It also introduced a pretty extensive back story, for as far as that's possible with a chapter's worth of dialogue, between the main character, Gideon Coxall, and the person that was sitting next to him in the car. After the first chapter, though, that character is nowhere to be seen for the rest of the book, until the very last chapter, and I won't spoil exactly under which circumstances the two characters split up.
What happens, though, is that Coxall stumbles across a man that claims to be Odin and, for some reason, manages to convince Coxall (try saying that quickly three times and not start hearing 'cocks all') to stay with him and help fight against the oncoming Ragnarok.
When I realized that Ragnarok was going to be a big part of the story, I wished that I had ever taken the time to research the actual Norse mythology besides the stories that I was shown during the 'Age of Mythology' games I had played. All I knew was that it was, basically, the end of times, which still didn't mean all that much to me, as there are a lot of ends of times and I didn't know the particulars of this one.
Anyway, there are a lot of characters from the Norse mythology introduced. The first Thor movie came out after this book, and I actually recognized a number of them from the book, which I count as a good thing. Some of the mythology was actually explained, like when there was a Chinook helicopter that everyone called 'Sleipnir', the eight-legged, flying horse that was gifted to Odin by Loki, which was explained in full after the name was dropped. It almost felt like a joke, as if the book was poking a little bit of fun on the original mythology.
Everything taken together, though, the book was a bit of a disappointment. Every time I got the feeling the book went to a major battle or skirmish, it burned out to a sizzle. There was a lot of tension building that eventually deflated with nothing, or something quite minor, happening, and I quite disliked it, to be honest.

After finishing off these three books, I did some additional research. I know that a writer never stops writing, unless they burn out or experience a writer's block, so I Googled James Lovegrove and immediately found his website. Back then, only the three books I had already read were up there, so I was satisfied with the fact that I had finished yet another series.
I kept frequenting the American Book Center, though. I had started reading the 'Horus Heresy' books, after playing 'Warhammer 40.000: Space Marine' and taking a liking to the lore of the '40K' series. I read all of the TVTropes page, of both '40K' and the 'Horus Heresy', and had decided that I was ready to start reading the series. As such, I was very happy to find out that my ABC actually stocked basically all of the 'Heresy' books and I returned regularly as I polished off book after book.
But, every time I walked by, I threw a loving look at the three 'Age of...' books as I walked by. It had grown to be a bit of a ritual, checking up on the books, until I suddenly saw that a fourth book had joined the three.

I was a little nervous about 'Age of Aztec', because I didn't have an idea of what the Aztec culture was all about. I had a basic knowledge of the Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythologies, but that was all because of 'Age of Mythology' and because those three had all been pretty big during my youth. I was aware of the Aztecian mythology like you are aware of a light pole in the streets. I was aware of the fact that it existed, but I didn't know all that much about it.
It didn't take me long to realize that, just like in 'Age of Odin' and the books before that, the book would probably teach me a thing or two about the Aztec culture and the mythology that belonged to it. It really didn't disappoint.
I have to say that this book was released before the big '21-12-2012', because it actually played a pretty big role in the story despite being a Mayan thing. The date is, basically, considered to be one month after the new year, and I won't say anything else about this because of spoilers.
For the first time in the series, the book follows two main characters, but neither of them are gods. One of them is Mal Vaughn, a police detective who is on the trail of 'The Conquistador', a masked vigilante that is systematically killing off the Aztecian religious leaders all over the world. The other one is Stuart Reston, said vigilante, and he actively opposes the oppressive, cruel Aztec culture that rules the world.
What became clear to me immediately, or, after the first couple of chapters, was that the Aztec culture was a harsh, cruel one. Human sacrifice wasn't only a regular event, being chosen to be a sacrifice was actually an honor that was supposed to be applauded instead of dreaded. The way it was treated didn't really matter, though, because someone was still dead by the end of the ritual.
What disturbed me the most about the book, though, was the fact that most of the barbaric rituals were actually treated as public events. At some point, Vaughn's boss is discredited and shamed and, apparently, the only reasonable way to deal with this is a public execution. Said execution isn't done quickly, though, as Vaughn is forced to fight her boss, where he is armed with a feather attached to a stick and she is given a stick with numberous nails and blades attached to it. The fight is made a big point in the story, where important information is given, but it still made me feel a little sick about the way someone was basically told 'you are going to die, but we are going to give you the illusion of a chance'.
The end of the book was also a surprise to me. By that time, it had turned out that the 'gods' everyone was worshipping were actually real, but they weren't actually gods. They turned out to be sufficiently advanced aliens that had visited the Aztecs first and had given them the chance to grow out to be the dominant religion on Earth to use them as guinea pigs. In 'Age of Zeus' the gods weren't actually gods, and in 'Age of Odin' their origin was kept quite ambiguous, but this time the gods were actually an outside force that was actively forcing itself on the world, which felt very scientology to me, but I decided to ignore it in favor of the ending. This book was actually the first one to feature an apocalyptic ending with the end of the world ensured before the last page. 'Age of Aztec' made it very clear that there was no way that there would be a sequel to this book, just like 'Age of Zeus' did. 'Age of Ra' and 'Age of Odin' could easily be followed by a sequel where things would be made clearer, but 'Age of Aztec' left absolutely no avenues open, which is something I can respect.

Finding out that 'Age of Aztec' had been released while I wasn't looking made me go back to the internet and research mister Lovegrove again to see if I had missed more books. As it turned out, I did, because a story called 'Age of Anansi' had been released simultaneously with 'Age of Aztec'. It took me a lot of research and fruitless searching before I realized that 'Age of Anansi' was actuall a novella that hadn't been released in print. It was only available as an e-book, and I didn't have an e-reader, nor a smartphone or other device that was able to read e-books, so I decided to drop it and accept that the 'Age of Anansi' story would never be available to me.

It took a couple of months, maybe a year, but I started to keep track of James Lovegrove. I didn't check his website daily like I do with certain webcomics, but I returned to it every now and then in order to get an update and see if anything had been released while the world kept turning. It usually didn't really give me any kind of news, but I eventually got the news that a new 'Age of...' book had been released. In this case, it had been 'Age of Voodoo', which had been far from what I had been speculating. I had hoped Lovegrove would go further east, taking Japanese or Chinese lore for his next book, but he had decided on a mythology that I had absolutely no knowledge of.
Which was both a surprise and a delight.
I like to be surprised like this, with both a book and a thing that I hadn't expected, so I once again got my hands on it as quickly as I could and started to dig in.
The book starts out with the main character, Lex Dove, diffusing a situation with a couple of rowdy characters in a bar, which sets the tone for the complete rest of the book. You see, Dove used to be a wetworker who retired some time ago, and he's not afraid to show off his skillset and, for some reason, he's still carrying a gun everywhere he goes. Take with that the fact that his old employers apparently still have his number, and you've got the reason for why the main character is throwing himself at danger while other people join him. It includes, once again, a love interest, but also a number of SEALs, which created an interesting dynamic. The SEALs openly distrust Dove, of whom they know just about next to nothing, while Dove does his best to hide his past from them and the love interest.
The twist is that the love interest is actually a voodoo lady, who has some toys that she uses with some success against people like rapists and the enemies they are trying to fight, which end up to be 'Zuvembies', or Voodoo Zombies.
That is the gripe I have with this book. It actually shows how the main antagonist talks with the people around him while he's obviously setting them up for a betrayal, and everything about him screams 'Hidden Agenda!', but the whole book appears to revolve around the fact that everyone around him is way too blind to actually see it.
The zuvembies themselves, though, are some of the best zombies I've seen portrayed in books up until now. Lovegrove actually took the time to try and come up with a scientific explanation for the zuvembies, besides 'voodoo happened', which means that I felt like it was a plausible danger while reading the book. The zuvembies also showed the immense stamina and difficulty to be killed, including headshots, which felt novel after reading books like World War Z. They also felt sufficiently savage, what with the descriptions of people getting ripped apart while screaming and such.

I later discovered that another novella had been released next to 'Age of Voodoo'. It was called 'Age of Satan' and was, just like 'Age of Anansi', an e-book only release. I had already decided that I would probably never get to read the e-books, something I had resigned myself to, but I have to admit that it felt a bit like a shame.
Keeping track of the website of Lovegrove, though, soon brought me an update that made my heart jump a bit. He was going to release both 'Age of Anansi' and 'Age of Satan' together with a new novella called 'Age of Gaia' in a compilation that would be titled 'Age of Godpunk'. I actually pre-ordered this book from my local online retailer and was a bit disappointed that I was smack-dab in the middle of a different series ('Innocent Mage' and 'Awakened Mage', by Karen Miller) that I first wanted to finish reading before I started that off.
Unfortunately once more, I finished my last class with some book to spare in 'Awakened Mage', which meant that I polished that one off at home and then decided to keep 'Age of Godpunk' waiting until my class started again, in February.

I finished it by now, though, and I have to say that the three novella's contained in 'Age of Godpunk' are three completely different beasts that are written in wildly different styles.
'Age of Anansi' was written, once again, in the dreaded first person, but I powered through it while I tried to ignore the fact that it wasn't exactly a military novel. 'Anansi' is the first story to deal with gods from different pantheons, as Anansi himself is the trickster spider god of Western Africa and wants to win an annual get-together of trickster gods playing tricks on each other. Dion Yeboah, a lawyer by trade, is recruited to function as Anansi's avatar for this, and it quickly becomes clear that the tricks go from playful ('I put pee in your drink' and 'I put rotten flesh in your AC unit') to dangerous (a razor embedded in a piece of soap, or lining someone's cigarettes with LSD), to downright deadly. The ending was a bit weak, though, as it relied on Yeboah acting completely out of character when compared to the rest of the story, which was a shame.
'Age of Satan' was, thankfully, back to the third person and was actually the first one to span the complete story of Guy Lucas, from his early years being bullied all the way up to his winter years. In order to stop the bullies, Lucas gets pulled into performing an amateurish black mass, selling his soul to Satan to reach his goal.
Cue the next half of the story telling about different encounters with the Devil, or, as is explained later on, what Lucas perceives are encounters with the devil. Especially near the end, the story gets a strongly atheistic and actually starts to actively glorify atheism and the 'do unto others as they do to you' creed as the answer to the world's problems. Though it was a delightfully optimistic end, after the end of 'Anansi', I had to feel a little sceptical as I polished the story off.
'Age of Gaia', as the last story and the most recent story, which had been written just for the compilation, had the tough job of making me feel good about this book. 'Age of Anansi' was funny, but didn't really endear me. 'Age of Satan' gave me a pretty epic story with twists and turns, but it left me sceptical. It was all up to Barnaby Pollard, which I still think is a strange name, and Lydia Laidlaw to make this book up for me.
It started out innocent enough, with the extremely rich Pollard, CEO of a company that actively exploits the Earth's natural resources, working on getting some environmentalists off his back by taking them on a tour across the world. After that, though, it quickly turned into a romance between Pollard and Laidlaw that was, to my surprise, very graphic an pornographically described. When Lovegrove actually started to describe the sex I started to feel a bit uncomfortable, considering the fact that I was reading in the train and didn't really want someone to read that kind of thing over my shoulder... The twist being, of course, that Laidlaw was the personification of Gaia, the world, and the way Pollard treats her immediately reflects on the way the world treats him and his company. It wasn't a pretty ending.
All in all, the compilation was a fun thing, but none of the stories really left a positive imprint on me. It felt a lot like the end of 'Age of Aztec', though we aren't talking about a scale like that ending. It just left me with a bit of disappointment in the back of my head.

Well, that was quite the story... Props if you read it all. My research has already shown me that there is going to be yet another 'Age of...' book, this one called 'Age of Shiva', which is yet another culture and pantheon that I know next to nothing about. Considering the fact that 'Shiva' is set to be released in april this year, I know that I have a bit of time to research it all...
I just hope to be able to get back to writing again!

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