Mazes of Magic is an unusual book that focuses on mystical magic and Egyptian Gods. Sounds Awesome? Of course, it does. Set in the era of the new Ptolemaic Dynasty, Egypt has transitioned from Egyptian rule to a bunch of Greeks that they don’t like. Massa presents a unique picture of what happens in the aftermath after Alexander’s conquests. The story focuses on Korax, a poet and a philosopher from Rhodes. Rhodes was a city of splendour and fame. But its history is not explored in much depth. You don’t see much written about Rhodes, despite the fact that it played an important role in Greek History. There are many lesser-known cities in the Greek period that don’t get enough attention apart from Delphi, Sparta, and Athens. So I consider this a very wise decision.
During this time, Korax learns to read like a scribe as Honrouphis has much godlier ambitions to become the High Priest of Egypt and use Korax for his own needs. Harnouphis is a difficult character to deal with because he falls into two categories of this novel. On the one hand, he is a highly ambitious man that wants the priesthood of Egypt on his side. On the other, he falls into the category of many villains that want the same thing. Power. This makes his character sometimes feel one-dimensional in the sense that we do not get a deeper back story as to what drives Harnouphis to retain power. I felt as if Harnouphis needed more scenes to fully show his dangerous side. To see how he would welcome the Gods, to demonstrate how he would be seen as the righteous man
The entire novel is based on a game of cat and mouse. Korax gathers allies to help him against Harnouphis and his minion, Mehen.
The first theme we will start is with the Greek Underworld:
Firstly, to have a character experiencing his turmoil in the Greek Underworld, and to be so quickly cast away was one of the best openings I have seen for a historical novel that deals with Gods and Mythology. When he is cast-away into the Greek Underworld, forgetting his life, that’s what made want to read on and discover about his past life. I feel as if enough novels do not cover the subject properly especially when it is a historical era.
The second theme relies on Korax’s identity to revive his past. I can understand that while Korax is from Rhodes, I would have appreciated if Maasa had spent more time developing Korax’s fascination with Egypt. Let us look at it this way. It’s like making a character in a Western novel, say an ex-confederate soldier losing his memory and arriving into Cree Territory for example. Therefore this motivation is what drives Korax to reconnect with his culture since he feels he doesn’t belong in a country like Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Greeks may have had disputes with the native Egyptians, but they could only marvel at the achievements of the Egyptians’ architecture and their Gods. Throughout the novel, we often go from chapter to chapter recalling his past. You discover so much about Korax’s past. For example, he was challenged by his mates, often in the chance of proposing to a beautiful woman Korax had liked. The bully in this novel tried many times in his past lifetimes to steal Korax’s limelight.
Maasa’s use of flashbacks was refreshing and I encourage more authors to do this.
The third motif is that Korax begins to lose his Greek identity, forgetting his past and integrating into Egyptian society. Korax begins to learn the secrets of the Temple and wishes to ascend to the House of Life. There’s a scene where he begins to realize he is more Egyptian than Greek. He hates the new name his Egyptian scribes have given him. He is Korax of Rhodes. Korax struggles to retain his natural identity while simultaneously resisting his Egyptian integration. Many times during this novel, we see the first descent of his spiritualness into the Egyptian Afterlife. As he seeks and develops the skills to learn, read and write Egyptian, I would have wanted him to have more of an appreciation of the fact that he was the one selected by the Gods to study this sacred art. Barely 1% of the Egyptian population was literate, and his obsession to go to Rhodes meant that he was not fully aware of the glorious land that he was in. But on the other hand, I can understand his motive. When you have transported into a land thousands of miles away, you will want to go home no matter what. I would have wanted Jack Maasa to strengthen this bond and to make it increasingly difficult for Korax to struggle with his identity. He does this successfully as Korax begins to forget his name, and he becomes more native then even the Egyptians are! I developed a devotion to Mehen, one of the Chief Scribes and true to form, his undying loyalty becomes the fate of his destiny.
In the middle, Korax learns under the watchful eyes of Mehen, the servant of Harnopuhis. Mehen is one of those characters that although does not like foreigners, you do end up growing to like him. He learns the special arts and meditation techniques of the Egyptian Priesthood, and he begins to become a native. There’s a scene where he walks with Harnopuhis and they meet Ptah. Some of the scene’s descriptions accurately fit the description of the Gods. We see Isis many times, though the cover is centred on her, I didn’t see her role being expanded enough apart from being a wise vision to Korax. I believe we needed a few more scenes with Isis and perhaps Maat as well since she was the justice and lawgiver of the land.
There was a particularly funny scene where Korax was translating a papyrus and it was about an old Vizier describing the turmoil of his mortal life. That was a funny and brilliant little nugget. Jack Maasa paints a picture of Korax’s training by Harnophuis and Mehen, strict and resilient on every move he makes. As time passes, he effectively enables the power to speak with the Gods. This scene was under-developed in the depiction of the Gods in the sense that Korax did not interact with the many Gods available to him. The fact that Korax was being taught in the House of Life would have made wanted to see how a Greek interacted with Egyptian Gods. I would have liked to seen rarer Gods like Nieth, the Goddess of War for example.
Another character I liked was Amasis. The wise old priest that knew a lot about what passed in the Temple. He reminds me of the Old Turtle in Kung Fu Panda. His character was under-used in some situations and I feel he needed to be more of a mentor to Korax than Harnouphis.
Over time, Korax wishes to be initiated in the House of Life. Harnouphis’s scenes illustrate his power, but I felt he fell into the easy category of fulfilling the villain category. I would have liked to see more in-depth characterization with Harnouphis. For instance, he murders a priest so he can go ahead. He worships Set, the God of evil. My only criticism is that while Set will be considered evil, there was a time when he was not. I would have liked to seen Set equivalent to Hades for example. Both Gods are not happy in their realms, and to be honest, if you were a God and you were given a harsh desert land and an underworld, it is the wonder you wouldn’t be happy. But that is what the creator said you had to do. And so you fulfill your duty. I can understand why Jack went for this option because I find Egyptian Philosophy and Hindu Philosophy very similar. Now why these two religions? Because I find that Hindus worshipping their Gods, offering prayers and using Vedic chants to use prayers to strengthen their spiritual soul is similar to the Egyptians offering prayers, offering foods. Both Hindus and Ancient Egyptians had the Gods as a daily part of their lives.
Both Priesthoods were different back then, but the only difference is that Ancient Egyptian religion isn’t as big as it was once was, whereas Hindusim has still survived from the start of human history. Jack could not have gotten into a much deeper philosophical exploration between Set and Harnouphis, perhaps because although Ancient Egypt is widely loved in the West, it’s more because it required laborious translation to explain it to normal people. I mean the scribes that wrote down these texts had access to this sacred knowledge, not the common people. There would be disagreement in this from many other opinions, but when Harnouphis invokes Set all the time, he uses Korax’s body as a mental prison for him. So, therefore, it fits into that narrative of Set manipulating Harnouphis for his own benefit. And indeed Set and Hades were manipulative, their roles demanded it. Korax becomes aware of this every time Set leaves his body. It was Set that commanded that Korax should not know anything about it. As we go on, we see Korax invoking Isis. I was slightly disappointed that we did not get to see much of her role, but whatever role she played was crucial in guiding him. Korax’s past is something I will not dwell on because it is you the reader should figure out. His story is sad, to say the least. Read further, and you will be spiritually enlightened. It is a beautiful tale, and in a way, it felt like the retelling of a story lost in time.
In the end, I felt this ending was rushed. Korax had a love interest but I did not feel she was used enough and a deeper connection was needed. You will figure this out in the novel. Korax’s chemistry with the love interest was not fully developed enough in my opinion and needed more scenes. Korax tells Amasis he wants to leave Egypt and that left me conflicted, because becoming a slave in Ancient Egypt was so difficult, that you would want to stay in Egypt and explore it. His desire to leave Egypt so early left me underwhelmed, as I would have valued his deep connection with Egypt more. To be trained in the House of Life was hard for ordinary Egyptians. However despite the short-comings, its rare you get a historical fiction novel on Egypt that inter-twines deep characterisation with gut-wrenching dialogue and excellent pacing and entwines with mythological Egypt.
Overall, this novel was a treat to read. I would whole heartily recommend it as we do not get enough books like this on Ancient Egypt.