James Lovegrove’s Pantheon novels have been quite unlike other novels that I’ve read to date, irrespective of whether or not I like them. Starting with Age of Zeus and then Age of Aztec, these novels explore various religious mythologies from around the world and do an interesting contemporary science-fiction spin with them, trying to explain the existence of these gods in a way that you really can’t predict. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve only read the two books so far, though there are many more in the series, and reading James’ latest makes me really want to go back and read the ones I haven’t.
Age of Shiva, as the name implies, takes its cues from Hindu mythology. Specifically, the many Avatars of the God Vishnu, who is one of the Hindu Trinity of Supreme Gods. For me, Age of Shiva is like a culmination of everything that James has done with the series so far, being a perfect commentary on some key topics that have cropped up in the series again and again. It has a much better gist, much better characters, much better story, and much better pacing of the books I’ve read, and I think it is a great example of “Godpunk” as James has come to define the term through his works.
Age of Shiva explores how famed comics artist Zak Zap is caught up in events to present real, breathing superheroes to the world at large. Toiling away at his work, a loner without much of a social life, Zak is approached to become the visual creator of an entire team of superheroes, ten of them to be exact, called the Dashavatara (Ten Avatars). This sets the character off on an interesting path as he explores Hindu mythology, delving into a culture he has next to no experience with, and then discovering how the dream of these superheroes being real is based on a false premise and a bed of utter greed unlike anything.
Being Hindu myself, there is a lot to like about this novel. Initially I was turned off by the fact that of the ten superheroes in the novel, one were of Indian origin in terms of their civilian identities. But then, as the story progressed, I saw what James was trying to do here: write a story about cultural misappropriation that was also quite heavily satire in its approach. And that’s where much of James’ own love for comics came in I expect. He references several things about the industry at large through Zak Zap, and all of it makes for a really fun read, both entertaining and frustrating me as a reader, which was a nice balance by the end.
Best of all though, what I really loved in the novel was an exploration of Hindu mythology and how some of it might really be rooted in the reality of the times that the greatest epics of the religion were written in. That’s where the Dashavatara really come in. Each Avatar of Vishnu follows in ever-increasing evolutionary complexity and that is aptly reflected in each Avatar, with them being a facet of the different times that the God Vishnu manifested on Earth. Zak, and thus James, spends a lot of time on exploring what makes each Avatar superhero tick, and he gives a distinctive personality to each of them so that by the end you really get invested in their struggles, whether within the team itself as they learn to work together or in facing all the different challenges that they are forced to overcome.
And speaking of the challenges, given that we have religious beings manifesting as heroes, we also get religious beings manifesting as villains. Specifically, the Dashavatara are faced by various Asuras, who get ever-more complex as the struggle goes on and the world comes to accept these superheroes as real and… valid. Of course, matters aren’t relegated to such supernatural challenges, because James also works in several geopolitical events into the novel, such as the ongoing Indo-Pak conflict that has seen numerous wars between the two countries since they gained their independence from the former British Empire. That is when the novel really kicked into high gear, becoming more than just a tale of superheroes. It was a tale of global conflict that has distinct relevance to current events and the current state of politics within the Indian subcontinent.
That, more than anything else, really elevates the novel for me.
And through it all, Zak made for a really fun protagonist. Sure, he could be quite frustrating at times, and was also bit of a cliche too, but all in all, James did a really great job with him. The character is quite a complex one and seeing Hindu mythology through his eyes, and the super-greedy eyes of his employers adds a lot to the overall tone and mood of the story. His romance with the sole female character of note, Aanandi, was pretty cliche too, but that is perhaps in keeping with the comics-style narrative of superheroes, so it doesn’t stick out as much as it would in any other novel.
And I quite liked Aanandi as well. She was someone caught between two worlds and doesn’t really get going until the second half of the novel once the shit kicks in and we see just what exactly it was that Zak’s nefarious employers were really planning, but all the same, I liked her character, and would have loved to see more of her as the novel went on.
Like I said, a pretty good novel that deals heavily with cultural misappropriation and religious identities and satire, definitely one of the best that I’ve read all year, thanks in part to the wonderful pacing where you never really feel bored and just get more and more invested with the story and characters as the pages turn by and you move towards the super-explosive climax that has everything that I wanted out of it and which explores the mythology and culture even further.
Kudos to James Lovegrove for a fantastic novel!
More James Lovegrove: Age of Aztec.