Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Beneath the RisingHighly Recommended – Premee Mohamed’s globe-trotting sci-fantasy cosmic horror alt-history adventure debut doesn’t exactly shatter genre conventions as much as pants them and run away giggling. The novel has a kind of nervous energy that is both puckish and disarming, like a court jester whose council the king values.
Beneath the Rising begins in Alberta, Canada, not long after the September 11, 2001 hijackers failed to bring down the World Trade Center in New York. Many of the world’s biggest problems have already been solved—or soon will be—thanks to teenaged super-genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers, a multi-billionaire who has been making earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs since the age of four: rewriting the laws of physics, curing every illness from HIV to Alzheimer’s, etc., and who now has her sights set on renewable energy. You would think this gender-reversed take on the “boy genius” trope would be the hero of the novel, but that burden rests on the shoulders of Johnny’s long-suffering, distressingly ordinary best pal Nick Prasad, who also narrates. Soon after Johnny shares her latest triumph with Nick, an extra-dimensional eldritch terror called Drozanoth harasses and tries to threaten Nick into handing over Johnny’s newest invention. Johnny already knows exactly what Drozanoth is, where it comes from and what it wants. With their families’ lives and the world’s survival at stake, Johnny drags the hapless Nick into a world of international conspiracies and secret societies, Ancient Ones and Elder Gods, as the two teenagers search for a way to stop unimaginable evil from overrunning the Earth.
Despite being a little plot-heavy at times, Beneath the Rising is an attention grabbing romp that separates itself from the pack with its brisk pace, acerbic humor and fiendish world-building. Mohamed exploits the contrasts between the two lead characters to great comedic and dramatic effect. Johnny—white, pretty, blonde, rich and absurdly good at everything—can’t help but take the lovelorn, otherwise friendless Nick for granted. For his own part, Nick must tamp his pride down and keep his unrequited feelings in check just to hang on to her coattails, but he’s also self-aware enough to question the wisdom of his devotion. Mohamed never lets us forget that these differences matter: conflicts born of class, gender and race periodically bubble to the surface in the tension between them.
Sometimes I felt the novel was too narrowly focused on Nick and Johnny, leaving secondary characters to serve as little more than props and obstacles. But overall, Beneath the Rising is way too imaginative and way too much fun to miss.

 

Apocalypse Nyx (Bel Dame Apocrypha) by Kameron Hurley

Rating: 7.7 (out of 10)

For those unfamiliar with Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha (God’s War, Infidel, Rapture), Nyxnissa so Dasheem (a.k.a. Nyx) is a hard-drinking, hard-fucking mercenary with sliding scale morals, working mostly as a headhunter on the planet Umayma, as the never-ending holy war between her home nation of Nasheen and their rival Chenja drags on. True to Hurley’s cacophonous approach to sci-fantasy worldbuilding, the details of the Bel Dame universe sound outrageous to the ear (insect-based technology?!?) but function with such an earthy coolness and insistent internal logic that they come off as realism. Hurley’s new book in the Bel Dame canon, Apocalypse Nyx, is a five-story cycle set in the time between the first and second novel of the trilogy; the stories are all standalones, though they are arranged chronologically and certain themes and character arcs thread through the book, giving it a satisfying, unified feel.
In “The Body Project”, Nyx and her team are on a job when they come across the mutilated corpse of Jahar, a former squad mate from Nyx’s time at the front. The problem is, Jahar should already be long dead – Nyx was there and blames herself. Nyx pretends to be a bel dame to get access to the building Jahar’s head is swinging from, only to cross paths with a long-estranged frenemy named Anneke who has her own reasons for investigating Jahar’s death. Then the real bel dames show up.
Anneke has joined the team by the time “The Heart is Eaten Last” begins, as Nyx takes a job hunting down domestic terrorists who are bombing weapons plants in southern Nasheen. Nyx’s estranged sister Kine comes calling, and her magician Rhys is finally getting sick of Nyx’s shit and starts looking for employment elsewhere, and a shapeshifter named Khos joins the team. “Soulbound” finds Nyx and the gang investigating a smuggler moving contraband in dead bodies when they come across a woman dissecting corpses while looking for the “seat of the soul”. The shortest work in the collection is “Crossroads at Jannah”, where Nyx is hired to retrieve some discarded data casings from an acid lake before they dissolve – a job that ends up being far more dangerous than it sounds.
The nightcap to all this madness, and the best of the five stories, is “Paint it Red”. With the rest of her team taking some downtime, Nyx tries to take a day off, but Mahir, a fellow former inmate shows up to call in a favor, and hijacks Nyx for a smash-and-grab job while providing distressingly little in the way of details. The details don’t come until much later, when it leads to someone from Nyx’s past.
Nyx isn’t always an easy sell as a protagonist; she’s an objectively terrible person, but then Hurley tends to build worlds where only terrible people have fortitude/resources/luck to survive the day. In Hurley’s stories, the environment, culture, commerce, etc. is relentless in placing demands on your time, your mind, your body. Nyx’s coping mechanisms – drinking and fucking – are nothing new, and little changes in her temperament from the opening page to the last. This is a predictable feature of its placement within the canon of the trilogy – Nyx can’t really grow as a person any more than the space between God’s War and Infidel allows, and it’s doubtful Hurley would want her to anyway. Fans show up for the fatalistic prose, acid-tongued banter between hard-bitten mercenaries, over the top violence and female-centered action storytelling – Apocalypse Nyx delivers on all those fronts.