Book Review: Ramses: The Son of the Light, by Christian Jacq

For my vacation last week I decided to bring along some light reading — in stark contrast to a vacation when I was 17 and tried to read James Joyce’s Ulysses.  For this vacation I brought Christian Jacq‘s Ramses: The Son of the Light.  Son of the Light is the first in Jacq’s series of five books on the life of Pharaoh Ramses II, arguably the greatest pharaoh of the ancient Egyptian empire.  Considering that Jacq wrote eight books before he was 18 years old and has a doctorate in Egyptology from the Sorbonne, you might expect Son of the Light to contain an insightful historical analysis of the life and times of Ramses II, all wrapped up in an interesting story.  Well, you would be wrong.  Son of the Light is fluff, weak on the details as well as story telling.  Please don’t waste your time on this book.

For the quick run-down, Son of the Light follows the life of teenage Ramses.  He meets his father, the pharaoh Seti, for the first time at age 13.  From there on, Seti tests Ramses in all sorts of ways, presumably grooming him for the throne: he makes him face down a wild bull, he temps him to betray his friends and act rashly, and introduces him to the mysterious power of the gods.  The only problem is that Seti has already appointed his successor, and it’s not Ramses.  Throughout the novel, Ramses must continuously face challenges from both his father as well as others, including plots on his life as well as one mystery involving inferior ink products (you read that right — inferior ink).  Son of the Light is the story of Ramses formative years as he falls in love, learns what it means to rule, and navigates a political minefield to reach the throne.  All of that sounds good, right?

Well, the problems begin on page one.  For starters, most the characters, including Ramses, are flat.  When you read about them or their dialogue, each one sounds the same.  Additionally, they all represent cardboard absolutes — Ramses is always good and is easily able to overcome all obstacles; the bad guys are always bad and always get what’s coming to them in the end.  Seti is the only character that I really liked — he was complex, a little mysterious, and is the only character that thinks or speaks in dialogue that is longer than five words.  Everyone else speaks in sort spurts, and the dialogue is rushed and staccato.  Second, the novel is very jumpy: the whole thing is written in a series of short scenes, each about 20 lines long.  This ADD style probably works well for most young readers and children, but I found it really distracting.  Third, the story is just bad.  Ever hear that writers should show and not tell?  For example, instead of saying that one character is a thief, you could simply show him stealing a wallet?  Son of the Light is just the opposite, big on telling and little on showing.  One example is the ink mystery, in which Ramses is given a batch of poor quality ink to perform his duties with.  Throughout the novel, Ramses secretary tries to track down who is responsible for this poor quality product (we’re never really sure why), and in the end finds the answer.  Here’s how the mystery is solved:

At first incredulous, the crown prince yielded to the evidence. Ahmeni had put together a remarkable case; there were no loose ends.

What that case is and what loose ends could have existed, we’re never shown.  We don’t get to try and solve the mystery ourselves, as a bit of showing would have allowed.  Instead, we’re simply told the answer, to no great enjoyment or surprise.  Finally, the book is poor on historical details.  Jacq places Ramses teenage years contemporary with the poet Homer, who came nearly 500 years afterwards.  Nor does Jacq provide any real detail or insight into Egyptian life — everything sounds like it might have come from an episode of the OC.  I’ll stop there, but feel free to follow the reviews on Amazon for more details.

Now I’m the first to admit that writing is hard — very hard.  It is difficult to sit down and write every day, much less to sit down and craft a good story and then edit it repeatedly until it is clear, insightful, and interesting.  By goodness, it even takes a lot of effort to produce bad writing that is jumbled, rambling, and flat — and I should know, I spend a lot of time doing just that.  So I hate to fault Jacq for writing a bad book, since I know it still cost him a lot of time and effort.  But he wrote five of these Ramses novels in two years!  Five!  I’ve been working on just one novel for two years and all I’ve got is about 25 pages that I’d feel comfortable publishing.  Who knows how long it will take to get the rest.  But that’s because I’d like the book to be a good one that is clear, insightful, and interesting.  Jacq’s Son of the Light is really none of those things.

So here’s the conclusion: LIFE IS TOO SHORT TO READ BAD FICTION.

I should have brought Ulysses.

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