[Editor’s note: This review contains *no spoilers* for Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra. It does contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, The Mummy, in a recap halfway through the review. This section has been marked with spoiler warnings for those who have not read the first book.]
This has been an interesting year for two of the most popular writers in the fantasy/horror genre. Both Anne Rice and Stephen King have elected to write books with their sons—in Rice’s case, Christopher Rice (and in King’s case, Owen King). We recently reviewed the Kings’ work, Sleeping Beauties, and enjoyed the twist of that collaboration, so we were excited to experience the Rice duet as well. Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra is the exciting sequel to one of Anne Rice’s less widely read works, the 1989 novel The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned. But before we dive into this mesmerizing story itself, a word or two on the collaboration.
With the Stephen/Owen King book, the two hands shaping the tale were more visible and distinct in the story. For The Passion of Cleopatra, the blending of the two writers, Anne and Christopher, is seamless. Given that this book is a sequel, such a seamless collaboration is arguably more necessary but difficult to do well. Merging a new writer into a series is not always successful—John Gregory Betancourt met with mixed achievement when attempting to continue Roger Zelazny’s famously unfinished Chronicles of Amber novels. Brian Herbert managed it quite well in his Dune extension books, but his and Betancourt’s tasks were arguably simpler than what the Rice’s are attempting in that their projects were more “channelings,” as opposed to true collaborations, given that the original authors of the mentioned series had passed away.
For readers who are fans of both Anne and Christopher Rice, perhaps it will come as no surprise that mother and son have triumphed in their first team-up effort. Christopher has already written a number of books that bear a striking and quite wonderful resemblance to his mother’s signature style. One of his series in particular, the Desire Exchange books, read like something you always secretly wished Anne would do: mix the explicitness of the Sleeping Beauty series with her supernatural vampire tales. The bottom line is that the pairing of these authors is an extremely successful one and we look forward to reading more that result from their powers combined.
Now, on to the story. Since we last heard from Rice’s Ramses nearly thirty years ago, it is worth recapping the tale here. Mind you, it is well worth reading The Mummy if you haven’t already, or reading a summary (provided below) to refresh your memory if you have. Although not as widely read or discussed as, say, the books of the Vampire Chronicles, it is in no way an inferior entry in the Rice canon.
[*Spoilers for The Mummy, Book 1, start here.*]
The first tale begins with an exciting Carter/Carnavon-style discovery of a new tomb in Egypt, complete with a curse and mysterious death of the explorer. The artifacts and mummy are transported back to the heirs in London, whereupon the mummy awakes. The mummy itself is actually ancient Egypt’s most accomplished pharaoh, Ramses II, who had been rendered immortal in antiquity and was recently aroused by exposure to the sun. The fictional Ramses, in addition to his historical achievements during his reign, had also served as an adviser throughout the centuries, most notably to Cleopatra. As both her consort and consultant, Ramses offered for her personal use the same elixir that granted his immortality. Cleopatra demurs, desiring instead that the potion be used to create an invincible army for Marc Antony. Ramses refuses, seeing this as a potential despotic evil and the end plays out according to recorded history. Cue the asp.
The re-awakened Ramses and his remaining discoverers then travel back to Egypt. Ramses spies the mummy of his ancient lover in the Cairo museum. In a fit of mad passion and remorse over the past, he resurrects Cleopatra with the elixir, with disastrous results.
[*Spoilers for The Mummy, Book 1, end here.*]
The Passion of Cleopatra picks up immediately following the ending of The Mummy. In this volume we learn that certain key characters, who are immortal, are not the only members of such a brand of immortals, and we explore the origins of the elixir that originally transformed them. But rather than devote much space in this review on plot, it would be better to let the reader discover the pleasures of the story on their own and to simply say, in sum, that Ramses the Damned: The Passion of Cleopatra is an enthralling story rendered with the full flourish of a classic Rice tale.
But let’s explore this theme of immortality a bit more, central to nearly all of Anne Rice’s books. Ancient Egypt is a natural well to draw from for material of this nature, as the longevity of its history and culture is emblematic of the eternal. Much like with Rice’s vampires, the path traditionally believed to lead to immortality in Egypt was death, chiefly in its well-preserved tombs. The brand of eternity we see in the Mummy books, however, does not require death. This distinction creates a unique tension with the use of the elixir in the books. Given the premise of a soul or consciousness that endures after death, what does it mean when the elixir is used to render a corpse immortal? Is the soul or consciousness present in that body? Or does it remain wherever it had journeyed to after the original death? Ramses the Damned explores these intriguing philosophical questions in a way that is not as amenable to the vampire-themed lore.
But the expression of Ramses’s immortality is also unique and separate from her nosferatu. The vampiric form requires ongoing sacrifice from others (blood) and thus raises questions in many of her novels as to the inherent morality of the immortality. Is it then, by its very nature, evil and its catechumen’s automatically damned whether they are willing practitioners or not? For Ramses, this dilemma has been segregated from his indestructibility. After a single ingestion of the elixir, he is permanently immortal and able to move in day or night. But there is still a question of mores, just a more subtle one. All living organisms consume resources, and each act of consumption lessens what is available for others. Should a source of immortality (or even just significant life extension) be discovered, humanity would likely have to grapple with the question of its use. But Ramses also explores the inversion of this question: when given immortality, what is the proper usage of such a gift? In ancient times, Ramses used his garnered wisdom to advise Egypt’s rulers and extend their reign. But this eventually failed him and he succumbed to despair and a “long sleep.” Clearly this was not a vocation for the ages. But what, then? Let me turn here to some beautiful, emblematic Rice language:
“Yours was not a failure of spirit, Ramses. It was a failure of imagination. For that is the deepest and gravest challenge of immortal life. How to imagine it when we are bred and trained and shaped to see our existence as a brief, fleeting thing in which we skate helplessly across the surface of a violent earth.”
A failure of imagination. A failure of imagination born of fear and timidity. This concept is key, whether mortal or not. We speak blithely of “living each day as if it were our last,” but the truth of the matter is that fear of our own mortality and that this might be our last day can be paralytic. No time to do those things that require patience and effort. Worse, it can lead to wanton selfishness and disregard of those that will be present tomorrow or 100 years from now. No need to worry about the consequences if you won’t be present to remit them.
Perhaps a better question to ask, therefore, than what you would do if today were your last day is, what might you do today if you were immortal?