Age of Aztec is the fourth book in James Lovegrove’s Pantheon series, and it establishes him more firmly as the founder of a subgenre coming to be known as “godpunk.” It tells the story of a modern society under the heel of the Aztec empire and the Batman-style vigilante who opposes it.
Having now read all four books so far in the Pantheon series, it has become very clear to me just how significant Lovegrove’s choice of theme is to each book. In Age of Aztec, we see a world that has been completely co-opted by the Aztec Empire. Jungle covers virtually all of the world, and the impact of the religious dominance of The Great Speaker, the putatively immortal leader of the empire, is felt in every aspect of the world detail.
This is both the greatest strength and greatest weakness of this book. It is the strength because the best kind of alternate history fiction is the kind that goes whole hog into the premise, spending less time trying to patiently explain to us exactly what is different about this world versus the one we know and more time just telling a great story. This is the thing that makes Harry Turtledove one of the best alternate history authors around, and what puts James Lovegrove well and soundly into the same league. It is simply accepted that this is a world where the Aztec Empire has always and probably will always dominate the Earth, and we’re allowed to figure out the consequences for ourselves and just enjoy the story.
It is also the weakness because without this setting, each novel of the Pantheon series is pretty much the same. What is an ancient, dead religion in reality is instead the dominant religion of the book’s world, and some person or persons who oppose the oppressive nature of the regime rise up to try and stop it. While this does make the overall plot arc of the books quite similar, Lovegrove has thus far managed to keep the choices interesting enough and set the mood of the world under each religion distinctly enough that it hasn’t yet fallen victim to the Dan Brown syndrome of “I wrote the same book four times.” The pressure is on Lovegrove, if he continues with this theme, to keep ensuring the differences are significant enough to interest his readers in spite of the similarities.
A pretty dim view of old religions
While it’s pretty easy to accept the idea that a religion built around human sacrifice would seem savage by modern, “enlightened” standards, I do feel sometimes that Lovegrove, in his zeal to show us the horrors of some ancient religions, is really doing them a disservice. After all, most religions practiced today have had some pretty dark and bloody scenes in their histories; but humanity has developed, evolved, and a lot (though sadly, not nearly enough) of the atrocities are behind us. In Age of Aztec, however, we’re still working in 2012 with the version of the Aztec faith that we understood during the Age of Discovery, which ends up ringing a little false. We’ve seen throughout history that humanity will only stand for so much abuse and repression before they rise up, regardless of the cost.
This seems to be an overriding theme of the series, as well. The idea that it is the expression of freedom and the right to choose one’s own course that result in the downfall of these regimes is a compelling one, but it does strain credulity that it takes until the present time or even near future before anybody decides they’ve had enough.
Let’s see some GUTS
I’ll tell you what I think every time I read one of these books: Lovegrove is taking the easy way out. He has built his books around the Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and now Aztec religions, presented them in all their horrible glory, then set them up for a downfall. One of the reviewer comments printed on this copy of Age of Aztec defines this new godpunk subgenre as “Rebellious underdog humans battling an outmoded belief system . . . the real weapon is free will” (Pornokitsch, on The Age of Odin).
You know what I would like to see? Age of Jesus. Age of Mohammed. Age of Siddhartha. If you want to set yourself up as a critic of religion (intentionally or not), and of the negative impacts that religion can have on the lives of those subjected to it, let’s tackle one that is still practiced. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism that could provide a focus for these books. I would be fascinated to see Lovegrove’s take on one of the big five modern religions viewed under this same critical lens.
Why should you read this book?
It occurs to me that I went pretty overboard on the social significance of Lovegrove’s subject matter and didn’t really talk much about the actual book itself as a story and piece of writing. Those who fancy themselves deeper thinkers in their fantasy should take it as a great recommendation that someone billed as The Ranting Dragon’s “resident philosopher” found a lot to think and talk about with this book.
But even if you don’t—if the idea of thought-provoking writing about the nature of man and religion doesn’t do it for you—this is still a great book. As action fantasy, Lovegrove does an admirable job as well. The action is tight, the characters are interesting, and the plot moves at a great pace; the philosophical aspect is just icing on the cake.