At the end of Anne Rice’s The Mummy, the centuries-old Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Damned has given the elixir of immortality to his lover Julie Stratford, the heiress who first introduced him to the world of Edwardian England.
Meanwhile, Ramses’s former lover Queen Cleopatra awakens in a remote hospital in the Egyptian wilderness, having somehow survived the fiery train explosion that should have destroyed her. The murderous queen (who spent two thousand years as a corpse before Ramses brought her back to life) wastes no time in seducing a doctor and planning to track down Ramses and everyone he cares about. The book finishes with the statement “The Adventures of Ramses The Damned Shall Continue.”
That was twenty-nine years ago.
It’s been a long wait, but readers finally get to learn what happened next.
If all of the above sounds like something out of a fantasy soap-opera, well it is, gloriously so. I was a little concerned about Anne Rice’s son getting co-writing credit for this; I haven’t had a chance to read any of his books, and many times when one of my favorite authors has a co-writer it ends up feeling like the main author’s style gets watered down. Apparently in this case though Christoper wrote the bulk of the story, and created some fascinating new characters. His contributions blend seamlessly with the original novel, and the prose here is exactly what I’ve come to love about anything by Anne Rice.
All the characters feel everything intensely. Settings and clothes are described in striking detail. As with most of Anne Rice’s stories, there’s at least two sections where the characters take advantage of mind-boggling amounts of money (and time, and skill, and impeccable taste of course) to do things like bring a failing estate back to life, or renovate an entire castle that’s been falling apart. I’m not sure why imagining all the things that wealth can buy or create is such a fantasy for Rice, but it’s always fun to watch.
And of course there’s sex. Ramses and Julie are starting what they hope is the beginning of an eternal love-affair, but if you think that the sex acts are only going to be 1male/1female then you obviously haven’t read much Anne Rice.
But the story doesn’t just focus on how Ramses and his closest friends deal with immortality; we’re also treated to the history of the elixir of immortality itself. Specifically the woman who created it in the first place, and a little bit about what she’s been up to for the last few millennia. Bektaten makes her first appearance in the prologue, and the entire book could have easily been all about her. Her, her faithful immortal servants, her garden, and most appealingly her immortal pet.
(Yes, the elixir even works on animals. And since animals live in the moment, they’re even more suited to immortality than humans are. Minor spoilers; no animals were harmed or even made to feel bad during the course of the main story. You’re welcome.)
While the first book in this series only had the magical elixir, this book has several more supernatural elements. But none of it feels forced or out of place. It’s all revealed organically, the result of centuries of study, or potions that are almost as bizarre as the elixir of immortality. Or it’s a gradual reveal of the far-reaching effects of doing something as bone stupid as, say, pouring the elixir over a woman who’s been dead for centuries and bringing her back to life.
Oh yes, the story spends quite a bit of time on how idiotic it was to reanimate Cleopatra, and I’m glad. I remember almost shouting at Ramses when he did that in the first book; such a ridiculously impulsive thing for him to do, and Ramses gets to see all the many reasons (some of them things I hadn’t even considered) why that was such a terrible idea.
“Tell me, sweet, dear Julie, how did he offer you the elixir? Did he anoint you with oils? Did he uncap the bottle in some palatial bedchamber while musicians played? Did he explain to you its power and its defects? What you would gain, what you would lose? He did me no such kindness in the Cairo Museum. He rendered me a monster and abandoned me.”
“He offered it to you two thousand years before. You…”
“And I refused it! I refused it and still he forced it upon me two thousand years later in death. In a death I chose!”
The plot takes a little while to pick up the pace, and I don’t want to give away too much about the story when the action does get started, but the book has some brilliantly cinematic chapters, and some truly, truly horrible opponents. Both sides of this conflict between immortals can be shockingly ruthless, and you can never forget that sometimes the very worst thing when you fall into the enemy’s hands is not being able to die. Things get nail-bitingly tense several times, but there was at least one moment where the tables are turned in such a way that I wanted to cheer. It’s a scene I would love too see made into a movie, and it was something I completely hadn’t expected, even though the elements were set in place several chapters ahead.
In just one novel we’re getting the answer to “And then what happened?!”, plus brand-new information about the whole strange history of Bektaten and her lost city. There’s a gruesome plan being thwarted in a unique way, an Edwardian author who writes best-selling books about Egypt based on her dreams, Julia becoming something other than a damsel-in-distress, and poor unlucky-in-love Alex finally tells someone what-for. Politely, of course.
Okay, this may be due to recent events that have me thinking about mortality, but does anyone else thing that the latest Lestat books and this one are Anne Rice trying to get all her stories…finished? Loose ends tied up, various sources of misery done away with, and some long-standing questions about how it all began are answered, at least partly? Both Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis and The Passion of Cleopatra end with just enough left hanging that Anne and Christopher could easily write another sequel, but otherwise the books have been brought to point where all Anne’s favorite characters (the surviving ones, anyway) are in a good place for the final curtain to close on the story.
I mean, I certainly hope that’s not what’s going on. Let’s have at least a few more sequels, just to make sure we’ve covered everything.