Beneath the Rising, Premee Mohamed’s debut novel, sets up its world in the first few pages: one in which the hijacked planes missed the World Trade Centre on 9/11 and Johnny Chambers – a fantastically wealthy science prodigy – has cured HIV and Alzheimer’s and owns a mad Bond villain’s lair of a house with a Pacific giant octopus in a tank. But it’s also an immediately recognisable one, as Nick (our protagonist, Johnny’s childhood friend and Loyal Sidekick) describes the sideways glances he gets as a “brown”-looking Canadian, and his ten-hour shift stacking shelves before falling asleep on the couch. It’s the perfect blend of speculative elements and a carefully grounded examination of privilege, class, gender and race – and that’s before the evil inter-dimensional Ancient Ones show up, woken by Johnny’s infinite energy machine, bent on conquering Earth for a final time.
It’s a very bold set-up, executed with real confidence, but the reader has to get over a pretty large believability hurdle in the first few pages. Simply put, Johnny is so young that her litany of accomplishments appear – even for a genius – to be flat-out impossible. She’s seventeen years old, but was talking and functioning on a genius level by three – and her assistant, Rutger, was “discovered” by her when she was six, at which point she paid for his doctorate, gave him his own lab, and invited him on her lecture tours. We learn so much about Johnny’s achievements that it initially strains at the limits of plausibility – even though (as you’d expect) there’s a very good explanation as to the origin of Johnny’s genius.
This technique – boldly inviting the reader to believe the unbelievable – is deployed to great effect in the character of Johnny herself. On my first reading, I found Johnny extraordinarily unlikeable; on the second, I appreciated the depth of her characterisation. She’s presented to us initially as quite profoundly annoying – a stereotypical “mad scientist”, living on caffeine and pop-culture references, talking the way that makes characters in less well-written texts say: “In English, please?” Overwhelmingly arrogant, she’s a “battleship-class ego” – and rightly so. But Mohamed starts to tease out meaningful flashes of nuance and relatability: she hates to be touched, wears jumpers over her evening gowns at award ceremonies. She chides Nick for being so “gender essentialist”. When Nick’s family is whisked into protective custody – without a chance to say goodbye – she pauses, sadly, and says: “I’m sorry that my help looks like this.” She comes to acknowledge her own privileges – which are many – and with every twist in this tightly-plotted story we learn more about her motivations. A child genius with a very dark secret, Johnny is monstrous and lonely by turns; sometimes both together.
Nick is her perfect foil. We learn about him primarily by the way his world contrasts utterly with Johnny’s: he’s the de facto carer for his three younger siblings, the toaster oven is often on fire, after those long shifts “the next morning I [make] pancakes from the big Costco bag of mix”. As a character, he’s initially defined by external factors – racism (like the author, he’s Indo-Guyanese), poverty, lack of education and opportunity – and his relationship with Johnny, which offers many wholly painful conversations about privilege and wealth. Nick absolutely excels in the sort of self-aware observations that make my heart ache: “Students were the same everywhere: rich and bright, and not purposefully ignoring but not actually able to see people like me, as if they had some filter for people who were lesser than they were” or, when disaster strikes, grousing at Johnny: “Did you see where my shoe went? I’m not really… like, swimming in shoes. I have three pairs of shoes. So that’s like a… seventeen percent reduction right there.”
Nick has a big character journey to take – this is a book about their relationship and its complexities. When the story starts, they’ve been friends since they were the sole survivors of a child hostage incident, and Johnny – his loyalty to her – is the assumed constant in his life despite her inconstancy. Nick craves her approval, sometimes lashing out to get it – trying to take his ability to hurt her as proof of her (very hidden) love. Johnny, in turn, keeps him at bay with pop-culture references and banter, in a poignant portrayal of the gulf that can exist between two people that utterly depend on each other (“it’s an ocean, huge and deep and polluted with monsters. Yet it could be crossed… neither of us will, since it’s easier not to”). After this relationship has been so meticulously drawn, Nick’s realisation that Johnny’s friendship is a poisoned chalice hits particularly hard. The book culminates in a startlingly complex endgame for these two characters and what they mean to each other.
But on to the monsters. Mohamed has clearly a real affection and a real knack for world-building, and her novel is firmly built on a Mythos-type foundation, in which the Ancient Ones – godlike entities of endless malevolence – have been locked out from Earth after destroying human civilisations from Nineveh to Newgrange. As a reader, I found real fascination in the passages of exposition carefully arranged around the novel. Johnny has a very good reason to know about the Ancient Ones, and not just because she’s a teenage member of the Bildenberg group – casually tossed in, making me laugh out loud with the audacity and confidence of Mohamed’s world-building – and her notes in turquoise gel pen are the stuff of nightmares, featuring “cities ruled by ‘great animals’ that no one could stand to look at or touch; winged serpents… Thunderbird myths. Salt lakes. Inter-tribal, international and perhaps even interchronological (what?) slavery enabled by Their spells.” It’s the “ancient aliens” theory of Erich von Daniken given an authentically Lovecraftian feel – and even Lovecraft himself (and Nyarlathotep) gets a hat tip in one of these beautiful flights of imagination.
When we encounter the monsters – and their emissaries – they don’t disappoint. It’s very easy in this regard to resort to lazy tentacles (squamous and rugose), but Mohamed has a deft touch on her descriptions, including a floating eldritch horror capable of burning and warping metal like a deadly radiation storm. The proximity of the monsters to the gate – an impending cosmic alignment – kicks off a quest in which Nick and Johnny bribe their way through the Middle East, popping handcuffs, hiring pilots and breaking into ancient libraries. And it’s such an adventure. In a dark library, a maze of head-height book stacks peters out into sand dunes and an eldritch location guarded by a faceless watcher. A desperate hand-drawn spell transports Nick and Johnny to another planet – one of the places where They sleep. Glowing white xenomorphs track a commercial flight, attacking the windows.
Nick suffers lingering effects from his encounters with the monsters, including a voice which speaks in prose-poetry when he sleeps. “The sky is / not a sky / the sky is torn, ragged at the edges / a spill of struggling bodies / light by which one cannot see” is, in its sparseness, one of the best depictions of Mythos gods spilling over into our world I’ve ever encountered.
Mohamed’s writing sings in a hundred small ways, whether it’s Johnny’s reactions (“it was as if her fear was the ocean and her rationality a tiny submersible”), a hostile stranger segueing from jailbreak capers with “but the cats have been reporting unusual sightings recently”, or her lavish descriptions of the various locations. Casablanca is wonderful, all bright heat and light and crowds, old men, tiled fountains. And markets are particularly vividly drawn, like this one in Mosul: “Herbs and dried flowers and spices and random leaves, deep-fried street food spitting hot oil… huge tapestries and tiny ones the size of a mousepad, some showing disquietingly familiar tentacled things that, upon closer inspection, turned out to just be scenes of mixed seafood. White piles of what looked like porcelain were nougat, studded with nuts. Pigeons ran nimbly underfoot, iridescent, unafraid, driving away the sparrows.” I’ve rarely encountered a book which uses food – and the sense of smell – as so powerfully evocative of place, even as Nick frets about the racial and cultural politics of being taken as a “local” with a young white girl in tow without a wedding ring, and the stars and out-of-place aurora borealis speak to the entities massing on the other side of the gate.
While Beneath the Rising is pitched as a genre and adventure book, and has an embarrassment of riches on that front – the Ancient Ones casting down civilisations, horrible godlike entities stalking our globe-trotting protagonists using ghouls and magic – where it really shines is its portrait of Johnny and Nick. Johnny is both chilling and flawed, desperately trying to clean up her own mess, part childish and part infinitely wise; Nick, her faithful “dog”, struggles to unravel the bonds of friendship and expectation and past traumas. In a constantly twisting and turning narrative, full of Chekhov’s guns (and Chekhov’s landmines), Mohamed’s writing is both bold and personal.
Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed is published by Solaris.