Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Reluctant God

Our book today is the 1988 young adult novel The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service, and it amply proves Steve's Reading Rule #109: If Ancient Egypt hadn't existed, it would have been necessary for writers to invent it.

Just look at all the allures! A warm, sometimes abundant, easily-romanticized physical setting (not so easy for anybody who's actually suffered the purgatory-on-Earth that is spending any time in Egypt, but maybe everybody else), a strange and exotic people, a weird culture so like and yet so unlike our own and any forerunners of our own - and a culture obsessed with both mysticism and personal immortality: the perfect combination for fantasy writers of all kinds. Is it any wonder shambling, living-undead mummies have become such an entrenched part of our collective imagination ever since Victorian Egyptology started filling museums all over the Western world with uncannily-preserved corpses? And given the bent of the human imagination, is it any wonder that almost as long as there've been fantasy stories about dessicated, chap-fallen mummies there've been stories about various ancient Egyptians somehow regaining not just life but glorious physical youth? Their bodies are right there, placed on catafalques and treated as works of art in every major museum (an entire day can be lost in vaguely sick-feeling wonder at the specimens in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts) - it's a short step to imagine them as they were in life.

Many novels have taken that step, and I'll get to all of them in time, but I'm starting with Pamela Service's book because it's so sweet and bright and deceptively simple. It's the story of teenage Lorna Padgett, smart and socially impatient daughter of a renowned Egyptologist, and it's the story of Ameni, a handsome young prince of the 12th Dynasty ... and it's the story of how they meet and come to know each other and have adventures in present-day London and Cairo.

Mumbo-jumbo ... that's as good a word as any for the how of it. There are Egyptian priests involved, naturally, and there's a good bit of fancy-dancing about the fact that as the son of a pharaoh, Ameni is, technically, a god himself. He's entrusted by those priests with the safeguarding of two mystic urns containing the essence of Egyptian immortality. He's put into a mystically preserved hibernation so he can awaken when those urns need him in the distant future (because, as the priests very sensibly inform him, who knows if the gods will be around to protect anything, so far in the future?).

Almost all of the better ancient-Egyptian-awakens-in-present-day novels have some good rhetorical fun passing along the concept of how long four thousand years is; Ameni sleeps for four thousand years, and when he finally wakes up, the first thing he sees is pretty Lorna leaning over him, reciting his name with passable pronunciation. But before he properly wakes up, he feels the long wait of his sleeping:

His memory was of time. Time as a pure thing. Not as an empty duration between one event and another, but as a substance in itself, like an endlessly flowing river. It carried him with it, submerged in the sensation and music of its motion, never ceasing and never causing him to want or to remember anything more.

He awakens, and Lorna, thanks to her training in hieroglyphics, is the only person around who can even haltingly talk to him, and she's pretty and so is he, and this is young adult fiction, after all. When Lorna shows Ameni around her father's collection of Egyptian relics, Service has some good understated fun with the fact that Ameni can't help but think of what he's seeing as tomb-robbing. But when he comes face to face with a granite statuary head of his long-lost father, he stops. And when he confronts a statue of his twin brother (who ruled in his stead as Senusert III, he's almost overcome:

He turned at last from the time-battered head of the king to see three life-sized statues of his official successor, Senusert III. Slowly Ameni reached out a hand and touched the amulet carved into the stone of the king's chest. With his other hand, he touched its twin under his own shirt. His eyes misted, and he turned away.

The urns have survived as well, and they've been shipped to England. Ameni feels it's his duty to retrieve them, and of course Lorna wants to help, so the action of the book gets under way. But throughout the chases and adventures that follow, Service keeps her eye steadily on the extremely chaste affection (even at the happy ending, our two young people only hug) developing between the girl from England and the boy from Egypt:

They were already well into the country, and at the first sign of a tree-shielded lane, she pulled off, drove a while, and turned off the motor. Ameni was already asleep. Lorna opened her door and stepped into the quiet night. Gently she pulled his legs up onto the driver's seat and rearranged his blanket. Moments after crawling into the back seat, she was asleep as well.

The Reluctant God has a surprisingly satisfying conclusion (Ameni gives his gods a talking-to that, taken in excerpt, would do well to be memorized by every teenager in the world), and although it's necessarily slight, it's a sweet book to read and to recommend. Out of print when last I checked, of course, but copies as always available upon request!


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Anonymous said...

Great book. Suprising ending and loved the way the author wrote it.

5 Stars