Science fiction and fantasy                                            

God Of The Underworld And The City Of The Dead

by R. H. Stewart


Ancient Egypt, with its varied gods and elaborate death rituals, has stoked the creative fires of many writers. This novel begins with Chike, a healer living during the reign of Pharaoh Merneptah and using magic to help people. The Pharaoh summons him to help ease his mother's suffering in her dying days, but the price of failure is high. Right from the start this book is full of outrageous villains who live to inflict pain, guffaw madly, and twirl moustaches. Even if they don't have moustaches.

The story then leaps forward in time to modern-day Glasgow, at the haunted Necropolis. This is actually part two of the City of the Dead series, but the book stands very well on its own. Mhairi MacBeth is a young witch who goes everywhere with her telepathic Siamese cat, Jet. She and her family live in secret in the cemetery, lying low because they don't want to spark a revival of witch trials and persecutions. Her friend Dougie is the only non-magical person who knows all about Mhairi and her family, and her special ability to see ghosts and ghuls.

In this fantasy ghosts are more or less friendly and harmless, but ghuls are evil, the "foul dead". These damned souls are rejected by heaven, and they stay rotting above ground because they don't want to face punishment in Hell. The Ghul Lord Antoninus who leads them has a particular hatred for Mhairi and her people.

The book's style is a little unpolished to begin with, and the ghuls lose most of their dark and scary credibility when they're shown trying to disrupt a football match between the ghosts, which are so insubstantial the ghuls can't harm them. The ghuls seem ineffectual and silly. Meanwhile Dougie is plagued by teasing and interfering siblings, although it's not clear why he can't stand up to them more forcefully. However the story gets better about half way in when the stakes get much higher for the main characters. Mhairi and Dougie are trying to help a cursed ghost whose soul is getting sucked dry and who faces suffering and oblivion, like a second death. But they end up trapped in the underworld, where they have to battle for their own souls against an evil High Priest with strong magic of his own.

The Egyptian elements seem well researched, the action is tight, and tension mounts as the three of them run around in tunnels and try to evade supernatural threats. It's claustrophobic and well paced. This book has the structure of a good story, but it starts to come apart with the characters. Dougie and Mhairi are as bland as white paper, in spite of Mhairi's witchy powers, and they seem a little younger than their 14 and 15 years. At the other extreme the villains are crazed caricatures of badness, whether they're hell-bent on soul-sucking evil or plotting revenge and power grabs. Yet what unifies all the characters is the way they don't seem to stand for anything in particular. There's the universal struggle between good and evil of course, but without any kind of nuance to explain why these people are different, what is the story telling us? God Of The Underworld is passably entertaining, but it doesn't make enough of a meaningful point about the human condition or anything else, so it remains a candyfloss read.

12th September 2011

Book Details

Year: 2010

Categories: Books

  YA     Fantasy

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2 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

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