Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
Solaris, pb, £8.99
Reviewed by Charlotte Bond
Beneath the Rising is the debut novel of Premee Mohamed and it has all the hallmarks not only of great horror but also of great fiction.
The main viewpoint character is Nick, a boy with “brown skin” (as he describes himself) who is constantly aware of the discrimination he’s facing. The story is told entirely from his viewpoint. The second main character is Joanna who is referred to throughout as “Johnny.” To say she’s a child prodigy is to understate her effect on humanity. She’s cured cancer and Alzheimer’s. She’s created solar power for the world. She doesn’t live with her parents but has had her own house with a science lab since she was six years old.
In her teenage years, Johnny creates a clean energy machine that can run on nothing and yet produce viable energy. She shares this discovery with Nick, but before she can share it with the world, strange creatures start appearing. It turns out that the Elder Gods have been woken by the clean energy machine and have sent a messenger through to get it. Johnny destroys it rather than letting them have it, but it’s too late – the gates between worlds have weakened and it’s now a countdown until the Elder Gods are able to cross into our dimension.
It’s up to Johnny’s brilliance and Nick’s steadfast loyalty to travel the world and try to stop them.
Nick and Johnny have been friends ever since they were small and are about seventeen when the story takes place. Mohamed takes the opportunity to explore their turbulent teen relationship and the natural adolescent insecurities that are heightened by the fact that one of them is a prodigy while the other one is constantly feeling like both society and his best friend undervalues him.
The author also takes time to explore the consequences of what it’s like to be a teenager in an adult world. Even though Johnny is famous and unbelievably smart, she and Nick still face nearly insurmountable challenges as two kids of different races trying to work their way through such everyday matters as airport security. Mohamed doesn’t try to side-step the mundane issues just because she’s writing a book involving gods; she deals with daily struggles as well as the macrocosm of invading gods, adding an extra element of tension and conflict to what are already high stakes.
I loved the little moments, almost throwaway comments really, when you realise that while Johnny might be the most intelligent person in the history of the world, she’s still just a child – albeit an older one. She has built a chemistry robot that is sufficiently advanced to electroplate a dung beetle (concerned readers should be pleased to hear that the dung beetle survives and lives a happy life trundling around Johnny’s home) but this advanced machinery is covered in a “solid tapestry of puffy and scented rainbow, unicorn, and cloud stickers.” And when she writes Nick a cheque so large that “the zeroes [are] tumbling, never seeming to stop,” Nick notices that the chequebook is a novelty one with a T-rex and a triceratops on it.
For me, the real joy of this book was the banter between the two characters. Sometimes it’s just fun stuff, like when Nick feels himself in the glare of Johnny’s anger.
‘I’m trying to be, you know, helpful. You don’t have to PMS at me about it.’
‘First of all,’ she said, ‘I suggest you never again ask someone if they’ve got PMS, or whether it might be responsible for their behaviour, lest you get murdered to actual death.’
But at other times it can be serious and cast a sharp insight into the characters, such as this exchange where Nick is remembering the time he asked Johnny why she keeps him around.
‘I keep you,’ she had said, ‘because you are mine.’
‘And you don’t like people touching your stuff.’
‘No I do not.’
There is an interesting examination of race and gender discrimination within Beneath the Rising that, while defining the novel, doesn’t come across as overbearing and preachy. Mohamed uses dialogue and asides to address these issues, so it comes across more that the characters speaking about their own experiences rather than that the author is imposing her own agenda at the expense of narrative or atmosphere.
A perfect example is where Johnny, despite all her fame and freedom, states: ‘Clearly you have no idea how hard it is to be a girl, and my age, and a scientist, in a world where the old boys’ club still holds sway… Everything I do has to checked a hundred times; Doctor Joe in Kokomo gets published after one half-assed attempt… They have peers. I have fans.’
As well as deftly handling her characters and their issues, Mohamed also has style when it comes to the cosmic horror element. She uses interesting turns of phrase to describe something that is generally taken to be incomprehensible; by blending the void with personal emotions, she brings out the true terror of what they’re facing. Nick describes his encounter with Drozonath, the messenger of the gods, and how he felt: unhappiness, everything good in me emptying, like a lake over the edge of a cliff, vanishing into the dark and the cold for years, nothing ever returning to me.
This might have cosmic horror elements, but it’s not gory or particularly icky. Drozonath’s power when it kills Johnny’s pet octopus is perfectly pitched: believable and brutal without being hammy.
This is a great book for those who like seeing how dabbling in science can bring about the end of the world through ancient forces. It balances horror with humour, and the banter between the two main characters alternates between making you chuckle and making you wince. Beneath the Rising is a thoughtful, well-paced novel with memorable characters that seamlessly mixes modern day issues with eldritch horror.