The bulk of this novel takes place in the early months of 1914 with the specter of the about to erupt First World War looming in the background for, to be frank, no apparent reason. While the gathering tensions are mentioned repeatedly in passing, the characters here are entirely focused on their own personal and supernatural concerns. A brief and crisply-written prologue (here referred to as the “proem”) reports that a rich shipping company owner and amateur Egyptologist has died immediately after uncovering a tomb containing a mummy. The mummy, in turn, has gone missing after the amateur scientist’s daughter brought it back to England. Has it come back to life to kill those who desecrated his tomb?
This obvious nod to the real-life story of Howard Carter and the so-called Curse of King Tut quickly proves a red herring. Mr. Stratford was plain old-fashioned murdered in a scheming relative’s bid for control of the shipping company. But that doesn’t mean some ‘real’ otherworldly doings aren’t afoot here!
Just the opposite, in fact—as the intriguing flashback to ancient Jericho that follows makes quite plain in introducing another whole set of characters who factor in the story.
You see, the Egyptian tomb also contained an array of anachronistic artifacts. Foremost among these is a lengthy journal from the time of Cleopatra, written in Latin and identifying the mummy as the onetime Pharaoh Ramses the Great, who now styles himself Ramses the Damned. One obvious problem: Ramses ruled his empire and died centuries before Cleopatra’s era.
The sheer complexity of the plot makes it difficult to review without at least a few spoilers, so please bear with me. There was a great (unknown to the modern world) kingdom in Africa long, long before Egypt rose. Its queen accidentally invented a potion that makes living things (people and otherwise) immortal. Her right-hand man jealously stole some for himself and their conflict basically brought down that empire.
You’ll have to read the book for more details!
Much later, Ramses got hold of some of the stuff and had to fake his natural death after a long and glorious rule. Locked away in the dark, such an immortal seems dead but is more like in suspended animation until revived by sunlight. Accordingly, Ramses rose repeatedly over the centuries to advise later rulers. The last of these was Cleopatra, whom he came to love. He informed her alone about his strange nature but refused to share it when she and Marc Anthony faced off against the invading Romans.
Ramses next had his lonely rest disturbed by Stratford and rose, thus the story (again firmly in 1914) kicks into high gear. The ancient queen and her former prime minister are still bitter rivals due to a key plot point I won’t reveal here. Ramses rethinks his policy against creating more immortals lest they suffer watching people they care for age and die—mostly ‘cause he’s in love with Julie Stratford and can’t bear to lose her. Oh, and upon returning to Egypt he impulsively doused his old love’s mummy with some of the magic liquid. Cleopatra comes roaring back to life, but having been really dead beforehand, she comes back changed: powerful but seemingly insane, and angry, not to mention horny and seductive as hell.
The question of what happens to the soul when its original owner dies brings another woman, a mortal American author with a fixation on ancient Egypt, into the picture as well.
This is the first-ever collaboration between Anne Rice and her son Christopher (himself a frequently published author with several best-sellers to his credit). But if any of the above (especially the extensive background info) seems familiar, it’s because the book’s the long-promised sequel to Ms. Rice’s 1989 historical novel The Mummy. It bears the unmistakable stylistic imprint of the horror legend herself. The theme of great isolation and loneliness arising from being an un-aging outsider in world of mortals is again paramount. And while you don’t need to have read the previous book, this one features a great deal of background info and story mythology, with characters referring to past events from that earlier work (much as in Ms. Rice’s vast Vampire Chronicles). These self-referent passages (another staple of Anne Rice’s work) are, as always, handled well and don’t slow the book’s pace over-much.
The main plotlines are resolved here, yet certain aspects remain to make sequels entirely possible—should either or both co-authors decide to pursue them.
What happened, for example, to the rest of the squad of soldiers the most-ancient queen’s betrayer made immortal in the course of overthrowing her (aside from the two who stayed loyal to her)? Or might we be treated to immortals taking sides and fighting in the Great War, thereby providing an actual reason for the period setting?
I’ll be waiting to see if the new Literary Team Rice (or perhaps Christopher alone, if Anne hadn’t the desire/energy to carry the story forward) someday returns to this version of our world and this set of characters.