Rarely have I felt the threat of colonization in a sci-fi novel as rooted in human history than in the Lovecraftian-Indiana Jones-esque novel Beneath the Rising by self-described “Writer and Eldritch Monster” Premee Mohamed.

You could reduce the plot of this excellent story down to two teenagers must prevent an invasion of monstrous hordes. But to do so would be to remove all the nuance that makes this such a memorable, compulsive read. For instance, there is the stark racial and class differences between the two main characters. Johnny (Joanna Chambers) is a super-genius who has been revolutionizing the world since she was five or six. Her triumphs include developing a cure for AIDS and Alzheimer’s, though it’s her latest, and potentially most world-changing, invention yet that instigates the plot. Her genius has earned her global fame and endless wealth. The class advantages these factors confer are amplified by the racial privilege she already enjoys just by being white.

Nick, her best and only friend, is neither rich nor white. He comes from a working-class family, has a crappy job where he has to endure constant Islamophobic microaggressions along with a few not so-microaggressions (which are doubly irritating to him given he’s not Muslim). On the second page we learn about how he is verbally abused by kids in the wake of 9/11. Adults are hardly better, with cops at malls, airports, or just on the street giving him dirty or suspicious looks. Why? Because, as he says, what mattered to people “was that the terrorists had been ‘brown’.”

Nick suffers in a different way through his complex relationship with Johnny. It’s clear he’s attracted to her from the start, but the equally clear fact that she is not attracted to him makes things…complicated. One might expect Nick to feel some level of resentment, if only because of how comparatively easy her life is, but his loyalty tamps this down. When it does come up, Mohamed handles his complex feelings with the nuance they deserve. This is important, given that a significant twist and practically the entire last section only work because of how well she has developed the relationship between them.

The threat in the novel comes from “Them,” also called “They” or something equally ominous. These nameless beings are seeping into the world and it’s up to Nick and Johnny to stop them (after all, it’s…well, I won’t spoil anything). Not giving these beings a specific name serves two functions. The first is practical—if you want your threat to have a Lovecraftian aura, you can’t get too specific. It’s a difficult trick to pull off. If you’re too vague, readers won’t understand the stakes or what they’re capable of. If you’re too detailed, you lose that touch of mystery vital to achieving real menace. When it’s handled poorly, attempts at creating Lovecraftian enemies can come off as a lazy resort to claiming “They” can’t be comprehended by our tiny human minds. Fortunately, Mohamed strikes the exact right balance, telling us just enough so we know how much more there is to know.

There’s a second and brilliant function using terms like “They” serves, which is to emphasize the otherness of the beings. This is crucial because Nick’s family history is intimately tied to Britain’s colonial past and how it subjugated entire nations for generations. The fear of “Them” ties into the fear of the Other that imperialists, fascists, and other scum past and present always try to instill by claiming some group is inferior because of skin color or something equally arbitrary. The fact that They explicitly want to conquer humanity—and in fact have kept Earth in a quasi-colonial state for some time—only deepens the connection. I certainly didn’t expect that when I finished Beneath the Rising I would want to revisit Edward Said, Franz Fanon, and Albert Memmi.

These parallels, as interesting as they are, never slow down the plot. It has an energetic quality from beginning to end, throwing challenge after challenge in our heroes’ path. Along the way we briefly run into people and organizations that undoubtedly return in the sequel, A Broken Darkness. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually, along with the third novel in the series, The Void Ascendent, partly because it’s not often you get the chance to read the third part of a two-part story.

Mohamed has crafted a universe with enough Lovecraftian and real-world elements to make the plot feel fresh exciting, and fun.

So go read it. Now.

_______

And remember to check out my published works and Matt’s Reading Recommendation Lists for more books you should immediately read!

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