Ramses: Son of Light is not standard history, but is standard storytelling. Review by S.K. Slevinski
In the first novel of this series, Christian Jacq recreates the world of ancient Egypt in intriguing detail, but he doesn't do much for the characters.
Ramses: Son of Light is a historical fiction novel that tells the story of Pharaoh Ramses the Second, starting in boyhood. Despite the widely held conventional wisdom that Ramses's older brother, Shanaar, will inherit the throne, Ramses is called by his father, the Pharaoh Seti, and given the ancient test of confronting a bull—a test of will and strength normally reserved for the king's heir. Young Ramses finds himself longing for the throne, though Shanaar remains in place as heir. His suspicions of Pharaoh's secret motives increase when it comes time for Ramses and his friends to graduate from their studies and find government postings. While his friends are assigned a variety of positions, Ramses is not, told simply that he is to be part of Pharaoh's court. Pharaoh isn't the only one who shows favor for Ramses over his brother. At a late-night city gathering, Ramses meets Iset the Fair, famed throughout the city for her beauty and widely believed to be the top pick for marrying the next Pharaoh. But it is Ramses she decides to seduce. As Ramses continues to pass his father's tests, his hopes and his propensity for leadership grow—but his growing favor at court does not pass beyond the attention of ambitious Shanaar.
This novel is not surprisingly well-researched by Egyptologist Jacq. He paints a rich portrait of Ancient Egypt without weighing down the story with lengthy description. Some of the research he uses to recreate the Egypt of Ramses will not be recognizable to many readers because it is more recent and does not follow the Biblical story with which most people are familiar. Ramses the Second is, indeed, the Pharaoh in power during the Exodus story (which, I presume, will be addressed in a later volume of this series). Recent research, however, has pointed scholars to the conclusion that there were not in fact slaves in Egypt, driven under the lash to build the pyramids, but rather willing Egyptian citizens were the builders. Jacq uses this new historical theory in his novel. Moses, for instance, is a friend of Ramses, and a known Hebrew who has been accepted as peer among the wealthy youth of Egypt. While Jacq's historical recreation is interesting, his characters are not. This story reads rather like a television miniseries made for the production value of the "swords & sandals" milieu. The characters are all standard types, from Shanaar, the ugly, over-fed villain, to Ramses, the handsome righteous hero, prodigious in his path to rule. The decisions they make and the twists this story takes are never surprising. This novel is a predictable soap opera.
This novel may appeal to fantasy fans looking for a change of scenery. It is written in a mainstream style that will be palatable to the general reader. Readers looking for an innovative story, however, will find this novel and its characters stale.
S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.