BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A team of godlike super-powered beings based on the ten avatars of Vishnu from Hindu mythology is assembled, but are they in fact a harbinger of apocalypse?
PROS: Original take on superheroes, exploration of a vivid and colorful religion, sympathetic protagonist, deft plotting, great action.
CONS: Not enough development of the Avatars.
BOTTOM LINE: A combination of science fiction and mythology, superheroes and deities, further solidifying Lovegrove’s title as Godpunk King.
I’ve been a devoted fan of James Lovegrove since I first read The Age of Zeus, his second Pantheon novel. Each year I anticipate the release of the next Pantheon novel. As far as running series go, this is one of my favorite. Six novels and three novellas (collected in one omnibus) in and Lovegrove continues to thrill. There’s no over-arcing plot and no recurring characters. It’s a series united in theme rather than narrative, a technique that results in a cohesive whole while continually managing to change up the dynamic that makes the Pantheon novels so compelling. With Lovegrove novels you always know what to expect and yet he still manages to subvert these expectations. You’re always going to get solid prose, dry English humor, a gripping mix of science fiction and mythology, and ultimately a clever plot. Age of Shiva is tied for my favorite novel in the series. Here’s why…
The first hook of Age of Shiva? This time around Lovegrove explores Hinduism. With each new Pantheon novel Lovegrove delves into a whole new…well, pantheon. It’s worth noting that this is always done in a respectful manner. Lovegrove does his research and, in doing so, encourages readers to do their own. Going into Age of Shiva I knew next to nothing about Hinduism. After having read the book I’m intrigued by the religion and intend to read more on the subject. With each new Pantheon novel Lovegrove also examines a new way for humans to interact with these deities — this is the core of the godpunk subgenre. In doing so science fiction is often married with mythology to present a whole new take on age old tales.
“We had been telling ourselves tales about super beings and their outlandish feats for centuries. Comic book superheroes were just the latest iteration of an age-old trope.”
The second hook? The Hindu pantheon in Age of Shiva is a superhero team — and it fits. This book is like The Avengers meets The Watchmen, but with an Indian twist. In the Hindu belief, the Dashavatara refers to the ten avatars of Vishnu, the God of universal preservation. In Age of Shiva, the Dashavatara is a team of superheroes assembled by the Trinity Syndicate (a trio of billionaires with grand designs). I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll avoid explaining too much about the team, save that the Dashavatara (or Avatars as they are also known) makes for a really cool group. It would seem that the devas (or deities) of Hinduism translate well into the world of comic book superheroes. Likewise the asuras (portrayed as a type of demon) make for great super villains. The whole dynamic is colorful and exotic — this is where the third hook comes in.
Introducing Zachary “Zap” Bramwell, comic artist and geek extraordinaire. Zak is a diligent artist, a perfectionist even, but a bad boyfriend. On his way to the cafe one day he receives an offer to design the costumes for the Dashavatara — an offer he literally cannot refuse. And why would he? A chance to work with real superheroes and the responsibility to create a look that will represent them to the world! It’s a nerd’s wet dream come true. Of course, an offer so good is bound to come with strings attached… Zak Zap is a strong protagonist. His perspective is a highly readable mix of geeky references and dry English snark. Zak Zap is perhaps Lovegrove’s most down-to-earth hero to date, an everyman in a way that falls back on the mantra, “What would Jack Kirby do?” In my case, and I suspect in many others, Zak Zap represents the reader him/herself.
One of my few disappointments was that the members of the Dashavatara felt underdeveloped. This is understandable, given that there are ten Avatars in all. It would have taken a much larger book to detail the backstory behind each deva — but that’s something I would have appreciated. As a comic reader I find that the most interesting stories involve the personal lives of the heroes, and how their caped crusading conflicts with these lives. Age of Shiva feels like the first book in the series that could be further expanded into its own mini-series. Perhaps this can be attributed to its ties to comics, but I would love to read about the further exploits of the Dashavatara. The world is very much changed by the end of the novel and though it wraps up nicely there are a number of directions that Lovegrove could go in. I don’t expect Lovegrove to do this, but if he were to I think it would be very cool. He has an excellent superhero team on his hands, one of the more interesting and original concepts I’ve seen even. And if he wanted to pursue a comic adaptation that would also be very, very cool.
The plotting, as always, is fast paced and clever. As I said earlier, readers know that to expect from Lovegrove and yet he still manages to deliver surprises. No two Pantheon novels are alike, and Age of Shiva is probably the biggest departure to date. There are twists, turns, brinkmanship, WMD proliferation, and plenty of super-powered action. The sci-fi elements are grounded in comic book science. The real kicker here is the mythology. Towards the end of the novel there’s a lump of exposition that combines Hinduism and conspiracy theories…it’s told in such a convincing manner that for a second I was prepared to start watching the History Channel programming again (not with incredulity but acceptance). Well done Lovegrove.
On another note it’s a shame that Marek Okon is no longer providing the cover illustrations for the Pantheon series. Jake Murray turns out to be an excellent replacement. The Age of Shiva cover is top-notch, successfully visualizing the Dashavatara. Add to this that he’s able to match Okon’s style, keeping the covers of the series consistent. I only wish that I could see Murray’s interpretation of each of the ten (eleven) Avatars.
Age of Shiva is simply awesome. Once again James Lovegrove has subverted and exceeded expectations. Hinduism is one of the most interesting belief systems the Pantheon series has yet explored, and throwing super heroes into the mix turned out to be the coup de grâce. This novel proves that there are plenty of original ways to explore godpunk — may there be many more Pantheon novels to come!