At the end of Beneath the Rising, the first book in Premee Mohamed’s cosmic horror trilogy of the same name, I thought narrator Nick Prasad couldn’t be worse off. Yes, he and his prodigy friend Joanna “Johnny” Chambers had closed an interdimensional rift and stopped the Ancient Ones from invading earth, but at the end Nick is left heartbroken, betrayed and disillusioned by what he has learned about Johnny. Like I said, I didn’t think it could get worse for him.
I was so wrong.
This review contains mild spoilers for Beneath the Rising.
Johnny and Nick did manage to close the rift, but it was open for nearly two minutes. In that time period, now called the Dimensional Anomaly, a lot happened, and as A Broken Darkness (2021) opens eighteen months later, a lot is still happening. None of it is good.
Nick has accepted work with the Ssarati Society, a secret magical society that is trying to protect humanity from the aftereffects of the Anomaly, and has severed ties with Johnny, but all too soon his boss Louis is ordering him to fly to Edinburg for the launch of Johnny’s new reactor. At the launch party, Nick connects with Sofia, Louis’s daughter — and with Johnny, who he is expected to shadow, and worse if necessary.
No sooner does the reactor start up than nightmare creatures attack. The rift is closed and barred, yet more and more monsters are emerging, and objects (and people) are transforming across the world. By the time Johnny figures out how the Ancient Ones are directing the colonization, it seems to be too late. She develops a desperate plan, but in Peru, the Ancient Ones snap shut their trap on Nick, Johnny, Sofia and Johnny’s assistant Rutger, stranding them in the original dimension of the Ancient Ones. There is no way out.
As with Beneath the Rising, there is a bit of globe-trotting (our globe) in A Broken Darkness, and we meet engaging characters along the way. Dr. Huxley, a librarian, helps them out and gets them to Prague, where they meet paranoid bunker-dweller Sparrow.
It wouldn’t be a Mohamed book if the writing weren’t beautiful and eerie, like this tiny sample:
…Black glass teeth snapping and champing, iridescent scales, huge claws ripping up the tiny tiles of the floor, spraying them up like raindrops.
Like Beneath the Rising, A Broken Darkness is bleak, and like the first book the bleakness is leavened by the banter between Nick and Johnny. Nick distrusts Johnny now, and even hates her, but he can’t put aside the habit of loving her. In this book, more than the first, it became clear to me that while Johnny may not know it, she is, in fact, evil. We watch her extort people, threaten them and betray them, and she grows increasingly exasperated when Nick calls her to account and won’t accept her reasons for what she’s done. Early in the story, a small subplot emerges when Nick discovers that the Vatican has issued a papal bull censuring Johnny. Johnny assures Nick that the pope just doesn’t understand what she’s done — the thing she created in her lab isn’t actual life, she says, it’s just chemicals and math — it just acts just like life, so she can perform experiments on it. Nick points out that all life is chemicals and math.
Mohamed creates and sustains an interesting ethical problem with Johnny, because regardless of whether the characters (or the readers) like it, Johnny is probably the one who has the only chance of saving the Earth. She’s like a nuclear warhead, as someone points out — you may never plan to detonate it, but you don’t want it in the hands of your enemies either. Without referring to it directly, Mohamed nudges us toward thinking about the Great Man model — the “lone genius” whose transgressions and trespasses or outright crimes are ignored because of the good he is doing. The trilogy is about Johnny’s chickens coming home to roost, to the detriment of the whole planet.
Throughout the book Nick struggles with his conflicting feelings for Johnny. He can never not love her, but no one knows as personally as he does the evil she is capable of doing. Time and again Nick weighs the numbers — all the lives on Earth versus her life, and time and again he makes the same choice. I thought this was well done, if a little overdone in this book, but there’s no denying that things are very bad for the Earth, and very, very bad for Nick, once again, because he chose to stay with her.
A Broken Darkness ends on a complete cliffhanger. Some questions have been answered, and for me, some more questions have been raised — and not just the obvious ones. I eagerly await the conclusion to this complex, beautiful and creepy series.