This week I’ve read Antioch Part 1 by Gregory Ness and have also been lucky enough to read the first ninety or so pages of Part 2, The Sword of Agrippa, as an ARC taster of the next installment in the series. My main discussion will be about the first book because it’s not fair to give a review or a score to just a section of a second novel, where the missing majority might be of a different standard. Part 2 Section 1 was intriguing but, you know what I mean, I’ve got to be consistent.
Looking back, the key word I associate with this novel is breadth. First of all there’s a very broad selection of subjects that the author has tried to capture and intertwine here, certainly putting himself in danger of over-reaching and setting a goal way too ambitious to adequately realise. Lists are boring but I have to give you some idea: Ancient civilisation(s), modern cities, a medieval city as a haven for scientific research, mysticism, properties of graphene, properties of hallucinogens, the birth of languages, the birth of religions, old gods and symbolism, the nature of practical energy pinned down in the lab, the third eye, fracturing societies in the face of the mob, past-life dream worlds, regrets and tapping into trans-mortal consciousness. Most authors would have split diverse subject matter on this scale into three different books but one of the reason I enjoy reading indies so much is that the writers say “to hell with the rules, this stuff interests me” and sometimes they pull it off.
The reason why this story grows into a fully realised unity and you don’t question the subject separation too much is the amount of background research that has been applied to it. I’m suddenly fumbling for words and the reason why that’s happening is I’ve soaked up a higher end page-count story with no slack bits and about two thousand details and references which I almost want to paste a link to because these are all pinnacles of discussion ice-bergs, then I’m attempting to convey that feeling in a handful of paragraphs. Each one of the details appears like a sliver of knowledge from a wealth of life experience that’s been popped in like a mapping pin to hold the thought in case he feels like returning there and expanding it. There’s no doubt the expansion could happen and further knowledge would unfold but the author leaves each as a point of gravid potential and then walks away from it. For someone like me (ancient civilisation buff, high tech fan), little lights blink on in my mind and make me want to email the sucker to say stupid things like “ah, but I bet you didn’t know that they also do this…”, sorry I can’t help opening email trails forty bounces long, when in retrospect it seems likely that someone who does their research this thoroughly probably does know much more than they included. This book could have been a mystical revelation about the beliefs of the old world, which would have been fascinating historical fiction on its own. It could have been an exploration of sci-fi discovery, what would be suddenly possible and how people and religions might react to that. It could have been a Roman boy meets Egyptian girl sort of culture and identity metaphor. Reconciling it all together and sprinkling it with illusions, insights and points of reference in real history makes this book a bit special, when you think about it. That shouldn’t have worked, but it has.
For people who can’t tell what is art and what isn’t, the best test I’ve heard of is to ask yourself “Does seeing that make me feel different?” Let’s see. If you read this book and go through the passages covering the end of the library of Alexandria, the worst loss of intellectual knowledge ever, well, I felt pain. I could feel the gap, the chasm which should have been filled with books and words we will never read, cultural references and memes that we’ll never get to use, the identities of discoverers of things and thoughts that we now credit to the second place scholar that came after them, the intense and horrible realisation that human stupidity chucked our species’ cultural heritage from pre-classical antiquity and the life’s work of the very best of us into a fire. Feel different? I should hope so. Then you’ll rage at the ignorant heathenism vs scientific progress topic, then the writer turns your emotions around again to chase the tail of the merits of Iron Age oneness and its closer connection to the human condition, which the modern reality has lost.
I like the idea the book is partly set in Prague, the magnificent city of architectural playfulness and deep, deep writers at the crossroads of Central Europe, a beer and sausage culture where the purveyors and customers reaffirm their own layers of cultural experience on top of the complex hundreds of existing ones that have seeped into the stonework of the old city before them. The lifetimes that this city and its intricate network of lived-in places attest to is no different from wandering amongst temples and public spaces in Egypt or Rome and visualising the immense wealth of history and the characters that traversed those same pathways before you. That feeling ties us to the past, which the author then explores by linking dream states across time too. Just imagine what fun you could have if it could all be reopened in virtual experiences. Yes please.
What I’ve seen of the sequel should not be read in isolation from the entirety, mostly because you’ll get the wrong end of the stick and think it’s just erotica. No, not that stick Gladys. The thing is, there’s a pretty imaginative scene involving a man, two girls and a mystical ceremony which looks like an excuse to hilariously mix an ancient Egyptian potion with gentleman juice which then glows in the dark and, essentially, the pretty girl gets painted up and sprayed like a techno dance addict in Ibiza who got told she could drink as much vodka as she liked because it doesn’t contain any calories and then danced her way into the boys’ dorm. That must be art as well then because I’m now feeling unusual. In reality, Egyptian history was rude in parts and when straight-laced British archaeologists discovered Egyptian tombs with murals depicting rude appendages and ceremonies (look up the lotus drug ceremony), the prissy Victorian prudes got their chisels out and edited them. That is absolutely true: modern people, uncomfortable with sexuality, habitually vandalised tomb murals that showed real scenes that the Egyptians really did, scenes from their religious practices and beliefs, because the western viewers of that time couldn’t bear the thought of their women fainting. Have you seen Pompeii? The only reason those murals survived was because they were underground. These Egyptian ceremonies with religious excuses really happened, as did Saturnalia in Rome, and pretty young things were really convinced that if they wanted to please the gods and pass to a higher spiritual plane, they had to get into the fertile spirit of the things and spread. I’ve heard the same thing about modern ashrams, that the best looking girls are considered ready to learn the tantric secrets long before the plain ones are. Then there’s the idea of making a donation to show your faith, which still works on fools in some cultures. Egyptians fell for this stuff too but it really happened, so saying that’s the way it was is perfectly fair. Scorpions sting. Egyptians partook of the blue lotus and then fooled about. It’s true. The reason that some version of this scene is necessary to the story is the requirement to set an important spinal support to the series, that a mystical ceremony links souls together so they can re-acquire each other through many lifetimes. I can imagine the Egyptian priests would come up with a ceremony for that which would get a bit rabbity, so the magic marker scene is legitimate and stays in.
There’s also an introduction to Hermes Trismegistus, which makes me interested in reading the rest of the series to see where the author takes that. Briefly, HT could have been a dominant western religion but it got pushed out in the power struggle which Christianity won. The Medicis were keen, as was an obsessed Pope (even to this day there’s a painting of Hermes Trismegistus in the Vatican) and HT/Christianity/Islam still have a lot of shared teachings from this time in the Bronze Age. When the author couples this shared history of knowledge with another ancient and very real belief, that of the existence of the books of Thoth (tablets of wisdom brought down from above and given to humans), then the fictional fantasy of tracking down the original temple of Thoth, that’s bait on the hook for readers. Yes, it’s an interesting series and the author has done a thorough job of revealing several worlds based on his interesting knowledge and then portraying it in a way that we swallow it whole. What an impressive trick. Let’s see where it goes.
A quick update to say that the sequel, Alexandria, is already available for pre-order: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06X92GPZF?ref_=pe_2427780_160035660