Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Microreview [book]: Beneath the Rising, by Premee Mohamed

Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed is an excellent Neo-Lovecraft debut novel that focuses on  the relationship between two young friends as they struggle against an Elder God apocalypse.

Everyone has heard of the genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers. Born into wealth and privilege, and also a stunning genius whose inventions have changed the world, from solar panels to vaccines. She has quite the CV for someone who isn’t even an adult yet. Her best friend, perhaps her only loyal friend, Nick Prasad, is slightly older, male, a person of color, from a modest background and helplessly in love with her.

When Johnny’s latest prototype, a clean energy device that shouldn’t work but does, accidentally opens the way for Lovecraftian Elder Gods to have a chance to return to Earth and take it for their own, the fate of the world is literally of these two best friends, and they and their relationship will be pushed beyond its limits. This is the story of Beneath the Rising by debut author Premee Mohamed. It comes off as lying in the extradimensional space between Ada Hoffmann’s Outside, Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw, and the Laundry Files novels of Charles Stross.

The novel throws us immediately into the alternate past that the novel posits. I am not certain and I am not sure the alternate world posited (above and beyond the changes and tech that Johnny creates) is needed or doesn’t dilute from the main thrust of the novel. It becomes vaguely plot relevant in the last portion of the book, but I still think, looking outside, that the novel doesn’t need it. The author, inside, of course, feels differently. That change perhaps niggled at me because of my personal connections to the point of divergence. It may in fact be on me, not on the author. Aside from that, the novel does avoid the “Genius that does nothing” problem that you see in a lot of media by having Johnny’s inventions and attempts to single handedly save the planet (even before the Elder Gods) have visible and tangible signs and consequences everywhere the characters go and what they see. I appreciated just how well enfolded Johnny and her work was in this world. It feels organic and well designed in terms of that part of the worldbuilding.

Above and beyond the changes Johnny makes to the world and the consequences of her genius is the Neo-Lovecraftiana that underpins the dark fantasy at the heart of the novel. The novel mostly uses the idea of the Mythos rather than explicit references to things from Lovecraft’s work, although later in the novel, Lovecraft does get mentioned as well as one of the beings from his Mythos. And I think I spotted a Shoggoth, although not named as such. It’s the general run through idea of the Mythos that the author works with here, and engages with winningly. The idea of covenants that she introduces here is brilliant, makes me think of D&D Warlocks, as well as the RPG Fate of Cthulhu. The apocalypse that Johnny and Nick deal with here could *easily* be one of the dark futures from that RPG.and some of the ideas here about dealing with the Mythos in the modern day is inspiring to GMs of the game. It makes for rich and vivid and something terrifying reading. I think the novel bends genres between science, fantasy, dark fantasy and horror, and by skill, the author keeps all of those genres spinning throughout the book.

The heart of this book though is Nick and Johnny as *people*. It’s their relationship that the novel rests on, and their relationship that grows, gets tested and aspects of it revealed. The burning question of how such different people would wind up in a relationship (in the most general sense, not romantic) together is slowly explored, given an answer as we learn more about Johnny and Nick’s past, and then that gets a reframe in the last portion of the book. This unveiling to the reader, and sometimes to Johnny and Nick as well, is masterful and really helps fuel the friendship and their relations. Both characters are genre-aware and the horror and dark fantasy that pervades the novel gets leavened at key moments by their pop culture references, and their relationship with each other. They have already been through a lot before page one, and that comes through on the page.

The plotting is top notch, and the pacing works well, giving us spaces to breathe punctuated by action sequences and shake ups in the status quo that is rather effective in “one more page” or, just as often “Okay, next chapter.”. Coincidentally, I kept getting emails and spam for trips to Morocco as I read the book (the characters do have a fair amount of time in that country) which added to the weird mystical nature of the book and the pernicious influence of “Them” (aka the Elder Gods) . It was a weird way for the book to be heightened in my mind as I read it. It was, in the end, rather positive. That also does point to the well written sense of place in the book’s locales. From the almost phantasmagorical house that Johnny lives in, to Morocco and further destinations beyond, the book is very good at immersing you in a sense of place.

Ultimately Beneath the Rising provides an enthralling Neo-Lovecraftian read with a strong pair of protagonists, a strong narrative character in Nick, and a detailed world and universe that I was very happy to spend some hours in. The novel does not feel like anything other than a one-shot, not the beginning of a series. It has an ending that is painful--but it works. Beneath the Rising is a single novel of goodness from a writer who has polished her craft with shorter fiction. I am more than ready to read more novel length work from this author.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for a very strong, very complex relationship between two main characters
+1 for excellent sense of doom, dread and mood leavened with humor when needed by protagonists
+1 for inventive worldbuilding and extension and development of Lovecraftiana

Penalties: -1 for a little first novel roughness.
-1 for a timeline choice I am not convinced works with the rest of the novel

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: Well worth your time and attention

Reference: Mohamed, Premee. Beneath the Rising. [Solaris, 2020]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.