Beneath the Rising and A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed
Solaris, pb, £7.37
Reviewed by Joely Black
There are certain times when you really want to like a book but struggle. Beneath the Rising and A Broken Darkness have so much in them to enjoy. It is about time somebody came along and gave a fresh new perspective on Lovecraftian notions of Ancient Ones bringing unspeakable horror into the bakery department of our local supermarkets. Not to mention an intense and well-written unrequited, or at least unspoken love on the part of a likeable and very human protagonist.
There is a lot to like about both Beneath the Rising and its sequel, A Broken Darkness. Mohamed’s talents as a writer lie in two very different realms: the deployment of her scientific chops in fiction; and the compelling and moving depiction of relationships and adoration. Nick Prasad is seventeen and the best friend of Joanna ‘Johnny’ Chambers. He is a Caribbean descendent supporting his single mother and three younger siblings by working in the aforementioned supermarket. Johnny Chambers is the opposite, the uber-rich, uber-clever, uber-successful white girl who somehow already has multiple labs, lecture tours, patents, houses, and a caffeine addiction which is the only way I can explain how she’s managed to do all this and yet still somehow contrived to have a semi-normal childhood.
Everything in the two books hinges on Johnny’s development of a clean energy nuclear reactor that, at the same time as saving the world, also tempts in Ancient Ones from beyond the stars to wreak the general havoc for which they are well known. The premise is fantastic. I love it. I love that Nick has a secret and deep love for Johnny she never appears to have noticed. I love his family, the mirrors they hold to each other. Whilst very different, they’ve shared so many experiences that keep them united, no matter what happens. There is much here to both delight and terrify the reader.
I found myself frustrated, though. Small matters become big matters, and inconsistencies in character development, pacing, and plot dug at me. I’m probably envious of Johnny, but working in the academic world and knowing its glacial pace, I struggled to believe even she could’ve done quite so much in such a short space of time. Notwithstanding the presence of child prodigies in the world, all of them face certain limitations of time available to do all the things, if nothing else. This was a nag I kept trying to put to one side, but I did feel Johnny could’ve been amazing if she’d been amazing in just one or possibly two scientific fields, rather than all of them.
The biggest issue I have with the story comes in the first book rather than the second. The first book unspools at a good pace, to begin with, developing the counterfactual world (an almost-9/11 rather than an actual one, for example), Nick’s and Johnny’s relationship, their differing lives, and the invention which will eventually cause such chaos. Tension, at this point, lurched from zero to sixty back to zero again. This happened not just to the plot but to the characters and their responses to events unfolding around them.
The leap from invention to appearance of Ancient Ones is too fast, and Johnny’s all-encompassing knowledge of them, which she appears always to have had, removed the delight of the unfolding mystery. The creeping dread for which Gothic horror is so famous was entirely absent. Nick’s reactions similarly veer about between understandable terror and less comprehensible flippancy. There is a tendency in a lot of writing to follow the Marvel-mould of banterish dialogue—“Oh, so we’ve got to save the world again. I’ll put it on my to-do list” – which while it’s appropriate for superheroes who do have to save the world on the regular, spoils the genuine blood-curdling terror one would expect from a stockboy first encountering a servant of the true darkness.
This pace is not helped by the author’s tendency to overwrite. It’s beautiful when describing Nick’s adoration for Johnny, absolutely and genuinely moving. But it drains the energy out of scenes where the objective is to horrify. I felt no fear at the appearance of the watchers, in part because there was none of that delightful drip-feed of dread, of information discovered in dark libraries and museum stores. I wanted to go on more of a journey of discovery with Nick and Johnny, and the books sadly deny the reader that opportunity.
The second instalment proceeds in relatively the same way. Sequels are incredibly tough on all authors. Striking a balance between recapping what has gone before and moving the story forward is tough, especially when fearing that readers may get frustrated if they discover they have to go back to read a whole book to find out what happened before they can get into the meat of the thing in their hands.
All this being said, there are good reasons to keep reading. Mohamed has done a great job of creating a magical world with scientific underpinnings that feel authentic. Nick Prasad remains, throughout the books, a believable and very sympathetic character. By book two, the sharp contrast between his role as a substitute father to his younger siblings and his job—no longer a stockboy now, but an intern at a secret magical society—create an effective tension. We really believe the pain and difficulty of losing somebody they deeply love not to death but to something much worse: opposition. As much as I struggled with some of the writing’s features, especially in the first novel, it is worth persevering for the payoffs at the end.