If you’ve had the good fortune to read any of Premee Mohamed’s short fiction, you know it is strange, beautiful and often horrifying. In Beneath the Rising (2020), her first full-length novel, all these things are true. This adventure novel with tentacular monsters and evil Ancient Ones will sweep you along and get deeply under your skin.
Joanna Chambers, who goes by Johnny, is more than a genius and more than a prodigy. She might be a miracle. In a world much like ours but very changed by Johnny’s inventions and discoveries, her best friend Nick, a regular guy, tries to be a lifeline for his rich, brilliant celebrity friend. Although she hasn’t turned eighteen yet, Johnny has found a vaccine for HIV, created improved solar panels that are in use around the world, developed clean water systems and food sources for hundreds of millions. When she comes home to Canada after her latest international adventure, Johnny is more exhausted than usual. She is proud of the prototype of a device that will provide nearly unlimited clean energy, but soon Nick, his family and Johnny discover that in creating it she has opened a portal to things that are ancient and dark, and they’re coming for her. When Nick confronts Johnny, he finds out that these dark entities aren’t just coming for Johnny; they are coming for the entire world.
Beneath the Rising is an above-average Lovecraftian adventure, with flawed heroes racing to stop tentacular monster gods from destroying earth and turning it into a hell dimension. What elevates Beneath the Rising above the other books of this type is the relationship at its core — the friendship between Nick and Johnny. It’s not only the silly adolescent banter, which is beautifully rendered, it’s the depth of it. As they travel around the world, to find and close the gate where the ancient monsters are gathering, this friendship is tested again and again. Along the way, Nick, who is our first-person narrator, is faced with degrees of betrayal he never thought were possible.
Mohamed’s depiction of the monsters is inventive and creepy. On their quest, Nick and Johnny discover plenty of humans who have thrown in their lot with these ancient ones, hoping for reward when the world is remade. Because Johnny is a minor, when they start their globe-trotting adventure, they face pursuit from humans, in the form of a well-meaning personal assistant, as well as the inhuman. And the inhuman is truly inhuman.
Something yanked at my leg again — not the wolf-things, but something else, a whirling mass of tentacles and claws of a dark, burnt red, with a single huge baleful green eye in the center.
The book shines, however, when it describes everyday street life in various parts of the world, and when Nick and Johnny are trying desperately to hold onto the rags of their relationship by taking refuge in banter. Throughout the book, Nick clings to his loyalty and his friendship even when revelation after revelation rock his understanding of things. And the backstory makes Johnny more vulnerable, while still holding her responsible for choices she has made (and is still making).
In some places, there are passages that just made me happy; incongruous in a dark fantasy, I know. But there are things like this:
“You can always trust librarians. They want to help, and…” She rubbed her raw, red eyes. “Memory-keepers are the pulse of humanity no matter where you go, no matter when you go. That’s half the difference between us and Them. We trust our librarians.”
The biggest difficulty I had with Beneath the Rising was figuring out that it was set earlier in time than our current present. It’s very likely that the time is marked early in the book and I missed it. Certainly the references gave me clues and I knew Nick and Johnny weren’t trying to save the world in 2020, but it wasn’t until I read another story of hers that used a time-stamp that I really understood we were talking about somewhere between 1999-2001.
Along the way, I should mention how much I liked Nick’s family and his relationship to them, and little details, like the fact that he has a regular job. These small points make his life real, and provide a contrast to the increasing weirdness and horror he encounters as he follows Johnny on her adventure.
Beneath the Rising will hold your interest and give you lots of shivers, and when you finish it, you’ll be thinking a lot about friendship, loyalty and the price they demand.