Age of Shiva is the latest in the Pantheon series from James Lovegrove, and after my disappointing experience with Age of Godpunk it was a refreshing return to form for a man who basically invented his own genre; it was an interesting and engaging concept, well executed with solid action scenes. One or two troubling instances in the narrative and a really weak stinger for an ending didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the rest of the story, which hit all of the great action beats I’ve come to expect from Lovegrove.
Zachary Bramwell, better known as the comics artist Zak Zap, is pushing forty and wondering why his life isn’t as exciting as the lives of the superheroes he draws. Then he’s shanghaied by black-suited goons and flown to Mount Meru, a vast complex built atop an island in the Maldives. There, Zak meets a trio of billionaire businessmen who put him to work designing costumes for a team of godlike super-powered beings based on the ten avatars of Vishnu from Hindu mythology.
The Ten Avatars battle demons and aliens and seem to be the saviours of a world teetering on collapse. But their presence is itself a harbinger of apocalypse. The Vedic “fourth age” of civilisation, Kali Yuga, is coming to an end, and Zak has a ringside seat for the final, all-out war that threatens the destruction of Earth.
For the uninitiated, Lovegrove’s Pantheon series are a set of novels and short stories which are completely unconnected from one another’s plots and worlds but are all takes on the same theme. For a given ‘Age of X’ book, the central conceit is the idea that some or all elements of that particular religious theme are true or becoming true in some fashion. The spiritual or religious system in play is often portrayed as negative, or oppressive, and the protagonists are usually people opposing or who end up opposing the system. This action-packed semi-science-fiction, semi-fantasy schema has become defined as ‘Godpunk’, and Lovegrove is the as-yet-undisputed King of the Godpunk Throne.
As you may have gathered from the title of the book and the blurb up above there, today’s adventure involves the ten Avatars of Vishnu from Hindu mythology. This is the first of the novel-length instalments of the series where our main character is just some guy. Perhaps influenced by the unassuming Roen of Wesley Chu’s The Lives of Tao, Zachary Bramwell is a comic illustrator who is known for his inspired Jack Kirby-esque costume design. Grabbed off the street on his way for a coffee and sandwich, he’s whisked away to be given the opportunity of a lifetime. It seems a consortium of horrible capitalists have decided to altruistically create a squad of superheroes for the betterment of humanity. And since horrible capitalists are always reminded to keep on brand, they decided they needed a comic book artist to design their costumes. I’m sure you can guess what happens when horrible capitalists are claiming to do something altruistic.
This is the point where my first issue sets in. The liaison between the ‘Trinity’ (the aforementioned capitalists) and Zak is a postdoc in Hindu studies with a speciality in mythogenesis named Aanandi. From pretty much their first interaction, he decides he wants to pursue her. She makes it pretty clear that his advances are barely tolerated mostly because she has to do what her bosses want, and he freely admits that he’s basically sexually harassing her almost non-stop. It got pretty cringe-worthy, especially since she was so obviously not interested. Then, after weeks of this, a plot event I won’t spoil happens, and suddenly she completely changes her tune and becomes the love interest. It was very jarring and a little disturbing. On the surface, this wouldn’t bother me too much, but this is now three out of the last four stories by Lovegrove that I’ve read where some pretty gross behaviour is presented without anybody in the story pointing out that it’s not cool.
Slight discomfort about that relationship aside, the middle portions of the story are quite excellent. The interactions between the various Avatars were great. Just enough original personality meshing with the legends about the mythological figure, magical powers that are accurate to the mythology and still at more of a Spider-Man power level than a Superman one. The way it was suggested that the process of becoming an Avatar sort of…infused them with the personality and history of the original figure was fascinating, and I definitely learned a good amount about Hindu mythology (assuming it wasn’t all made up for this book). The story was well-paced, and the first-person retrospective form in which the story was told made for some amusing internal asides and fourth-wall breaking cracks from Zak.
I was wondering when the actual Hindu deities were going to make an appearance of some kind. Age of Shiva was the first of the Pantheon novels to start from a perspective of ‘these aren’t the real deal, they were created by science’ instead of ‘Yes, this mythology is actually factual.’ So I kept waiting for Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva to make an appearance and to try and figure out how the story was going to end. Sadly, the ending was somewhat disappointing to me. We were presented with two possible paths to two possible outcomes, and then given a vague sense of how the story ended, and actually asked to decide the ending for ourselves. Some people might find that interesting or engaging, in a ‘The ending of Inception’ sort of way, but I’m a guy who likes my stories to end, and to end conclusively. My enjoyment after a book is finished is thinking about the events which happened, and sometimes thinking about where the story might go from where it ended. Leaving the ending mysterious prevents me from doing the latter. I can’t really think of any particular narrative justification for not telling us. The narrator knew for a fact, and chose to withhold the answer. It just left me feeling like the book had simply stopped rather than ended.
Neither of those issues, coming mostly at the very start and then very end of the story, detracted from my enjoyment of the meat of the narrative itself. If you’ve read any of the Pantheon series previously, this is definitely one of the better ones in the line-up. Action-packed, engaging, well-paced and with a great concept, it’s probably the best introduction to Godpunk of Lovegrove’s works to date.