Nick Prasad has always been Joanna “Johnny” Chambers’s sidekick. Friends since a young age, Johnny has rocketed into an early and brilliant career as a child prodigy scientist, while Nick has lived a quiet, mundane life in which his biggest concerns are work and family. But the two of them still have a regular, teenage friendship, one filled with banter and misadventures. So when Johnny comes up with a new invention that could change the world, Nick doesn’t think much of it at first: after all, this is the seventeen-year-old girl who has already fitted the world with solar panels, created lifesaving medications, and perfected tools that assist millions of people’s lives—to name just a few of her accomplishments.
When strange things start to happen, Nick soon realizes that this invention isn’t like the others. An aurora borealis that shouldn’t be visible from their latitude heralds the coming of monstrous creatures, relentless in their pursuit of Johnny and her new invention. Bit by bit, the scale of what’s happening comes together: there are other realms beyond ours where terrible evil lurks and waits for its opportunity to trigger the next apocalypse. Those beings, “The Ancient Ones,” are responsible for the annihilation of civilizations ranging from Carthage to Cahuachi to Çatal Hüyük to Atlantis. And now, they’re after Johnny’s invention and the power it can unleash to destroy the world again.
But that’s not all. Suspicious of how much Johnny knows about the origin of these monsters, Nick pries the truth out of her and discovers that she’s made a covenant with the Ancient Ones. One of their terrifying pursuers, Drozanoth, is here to uphold that covenant, and will do anything to make Johnny hand over the invention responsible for calling the Ancient Ones back to Earth. Now, only she has any idea how to close the gates that are opening between realms. Determined to help stop the apocalypse, Nick embarks on a wild scavenger hunt with Johnny across the Maghreb and the Middle East to gather the items they need to put an end to the invasion.
Beneath the Rising, Indo-Guyanese author Premee Mohamed’s debut novel, is a rollercoaster of an experience. Although Mohamed draws from cosmic horror tropes as classic as Lovecraft’s, she challenges the oppressive foundations on which Lovecraft built his career. The novel is set in an alternate history shortly after a failed terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The impact of September 11 doesn’t go unnoticed: instead, it, and the period setting of the early 2000s, deeply inform the characters’ every movement through the world and the global context around them. Nick, who is Indo-Caribbean and often refers to himself as “brown,” details the various ways in which his racial and class background affect how he sees the world, and how the world sees him. Unlike Nick, Johnny, the wonder-kid know-it-all seemingly blessed with endless genius, is White and rich. Although the sexism she faces is made clear, her privilege on other axes is called out in a way that feels natural to the characters and important to the narrative.
Lovecraft’s work often relies on racism to fuel its narrative and to lend horror and dread to cosmic horror elements. Mohamed, on the other hand, lays out the intersecting foundations of that marginalization and shows how those systems of oppression are the all-too-mundane backdrop against which otherworldly cosmic horror can play out. On top of that, Mohamed brings a genuinely global scope to her doomsday narrative. It is not just the West that faces an imminent catastrophe in Beneath the Rising. Rather, most of the main events occur in the Maghreb and across the Middle East. The rise and fall of civilizations across a broad set of cultures at the hands of the Ancient Ones feels like a smooth integration of all parts of the world, creating a truly global and historically linear scope of events that adds urgency to the narrative.
When it comes to the technical details of craft, Beneath the Rising shows Mohamed’s masterful command of description, pace, and emotion that renders powerful characters and settings. The prose is lean and deliberate, a short story writer’s novel. Mohamed, who also has several short fiction publications to her name, makes sure that every sentence, every paragraph, every simile serves multiple purposes. A sentence can reveal period- and character-appropriate details while also being embedded in an unusual, yet apt, metaphor that vividly describes and furthers the events of the story:
[Johnny] was trembling so hard she was almost flickering, like a poorly-tracked VHS tape. […] This [fear] felt more like something from outside of me, like secondhand smoke, greasily invisible, sinking into my pores, blown from someone unseen. (pp. 56–58)
Mohamed’s command of the rhythm of a sentence shows through in her control over the pace of the story as well. When Nick and Johnny have room to breathe, the prose is denser and slower as it lingers on fuller descriptions.
In the moment of relative safety I craned my head to try to take it all in, wishing I had sunglasses or a hat—it was so bright it just seemed like a spangled kaleidoscope of car windows, men in suits, tiny booths hawking electronics, sunglasses, clothing, CDs, food, tiles, everyone gabbling around me in languages I didn’t know, plus blessedly recognizable if not actually comprehensible French and English. People bumped and buffeted me apparently without even noticing. I had been picturing … I don’t even know what. Some mud-brick city from Raiders of the Lost Ark? Flowing white robes? Tintin books, for absolute sure. (p. 144)
But when Nick and Johnny are on the run, Mohamed’s prose goes into fight-or-flight mode, highlighting only the barest of actions, reactions, and sensory details. The reader barrels along, breathless, with the characters.
I shut the closet door, hearing first a bang, and then—oh shit—the musical tinkle of falling glass from the living room. A multilegged shadow, all spikes and floppy appendages and translucent nodules, firmly struck the hallway wall, like an ink stamp. I cast about, left, right, left, right. Kids. Bedroom. Two quick steps: empty. (p. 103)
At the same time, Beneath the Rising isn’t just an action-adventure chase after a string of McGuffins against a backdrop of tentacles, shadows, uncanny eldritch pawns, and imminent apocalypse. It’s also a slow tale about a different kind of unrequited love between two teenagers who were forced to grow up too early, and who have never had the space to address their lingering PTSD after surviving a shooting during a hostage crisis. Woven between the multidimensional chaos of the Ancient Ones’ return is a poignant, melancholy tale of what growing out of childhood ideals means and feels like. As Nick confronts the codependent nature of his love for Johnny, who turns out not to be the person he thought she was, he shores up memories and emotions that illustrate the processing he’s doing internally while also showing his growth as a character. The vindication of his fury and betrayal feels both earned and deserved.
The biggest strength of the novel, however, comes from the shocking reveal toward the end of the book that explains the true nature of Nick’s “friendship” with Johnny, and why he was even dragged along on such a dangerous journey he had no hand in creating. I’ll be including spoilers from here on in order to fully discuss the impact of the ending.
Instead of being a magnanimous scientist who simply wants to help the world, Johnny practices “altruism” as a reflection of her own need for power and worth. She may be doing good with her work, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t channel great evil and also be a villainous mad scientist. Her prodigal power and inhuman brilliance stem from a covenant she struck with the Ancient Ones. In exchange for time off of her life, Johnny can speed up her mind, like a supercomputer’s processing power getting a boost, to do what she does. But with that covenant came another clause that Johnny only reveals to Nick when she can no longer hide it. Afraid that her unbelievable talent would alienate her from the rest of the world, leaving her alone forever, Johnny bargained for Nick to be forever by her side as a companion. Nick’s true relationship to Johnny is as a slave.
This Faustian covenant, however, didn’t have to take place. Johnny admits that, if she’d refused the covenant, she would have still lived a comfortable, successful life, and would have still been a great scientist. But, lured in by power and the opportunity to influence the world, saving millions of lives in the process, Johnny agreed to a deal with the Ancient Ones. She justifies her actions with all the good she’s done—but Beneath the Rising is, at its heart, a novel about the true cost of power, and whether the ends can justify appalling means. After all, the Ancient Ones would never have been attracted to the world if Johnny had refused the covenant in the first place. The millions of lives potentially lost in a global apocalypse don’t factor into Johnny’s calculations of how much good she does and her positive impact on the world.
Therein lies the extended metaphor that forms the secret crux of Mohamed’s narrative: Johnny’s covenant, and Nick’s role as her “companion,” are tools to critique the legacy of colonialism; in particular, slavery. In a key character turning point, Nick reminds Johnny that his family, of Indian descent and from Guyana, descends from indentured servants who were exploited for the sake of the British Empire. Nick takes deep offense at the way Johnny doles out money, as if to buy people and solutions to her problems. Johnny’s race is actually the most insignificant reflection of her position as a symbol for colonization and empire. It is her utilitarian attitude toward people and her perceived self-importance as a representative of “the greater good” that motivate the true horrors that Johnny commits. Loyalty can always be bought. Nick’s loss of agency, the loss of his potential livelihood, and the psychic toll of not being a genuinely free individual, never enter into Johnny’s mind. Nick isn’t truly a friend, an equal, or even a person to her. He is a sidekick, a person to be uprooted from place to place so that Johnny can always have someone to carry her when she is weak, provide strength when she has none, and sacrifice his life if she needs him to. Nick is merely a resource she can exploit as an extension of herself. How many families, societies, and whole cultures have similarly been torn apart to support the advancement of Western civilization?
No matter how euphemistically slavery is named, whether as “indentured servitude,” “incarceration,” or “debt bondage,” it is ultimately the real covenant that robs people of their time and life force. The lasting socioeconomic impact of slavery, too, oozes through Beneath the Rising as the gulf in wealth between Nick and Johnny, as well as the gulf in opportunity and attitudes toward self-worth between them. No eldritch covenant needs to be made for oppressors to keep subjugating the oppressed. Through Johnny, the whole empire of colonization is laid bare and exposed: for all the “advancement” purportedly created by colonizers, for all the status colonizers lay claim to, millions of people whom colonizers considered as second-class were sacrificed. When Johnny sets out to “save the world,” what she is truly saving is the status quo of her own world of privilege. Nick’s world, the world of the subjugated and oppressed, has long since been lost.
On a micro scale, Beneath the Rising is the best inversion of the sidekick trope I’ve ever seen. The effect of a reckless superhuman crashing through the world are called out early: who will clean up? Who will pay for property damage? Who will handle witness protection? Insurance? Jobs? How will people recover from the trauma of such a disruptive event? Then, when the true nature of Nick’s slavery is revealed, we see the rare story of a sidekick walking away—of codependency not being romanticized, but called out for the real destruction it can cause. Nick’s anger and betrayal are validated narratively as he sets boundaries at last and recovers from Johnny’s exploitation. The scale of Johnny’s betrayal and the evilness of her act are never downplayed, even as Johnny herself, like many benefitting from the legacy of colonization, remains clueless of her impact, even going so far as to still believe that she is doing good, and that all the devastation behind her can be a footnote to her altruism.
Beneath the Rising is a near-flawless debut novel. While it works well as a standalone, the story and worldbuilding leave room for sequels as well. Multilayered and richly rendered, Beneath the Rising is a darkly humorous romp through unspeakable cosmic horrors that also paints a portrait of two hurt teenagers grappling with their place in the world and their relationship with each other, all while navigating complex inner worlds impacted by the legacies of colonization, slavery, racism, and sexism. Like a doomsday device, Beneath the Rising is compact, powerful, and devastating as it hurls the reader through a brilliantly crafted narrative. Prepare for an epic journey, and don’t forget to bring a barf bag for the turbulent ride.