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The Void Ascendant coverAt the end of Premee Mohamed’s 2021 novel A Broken Darkness, girl genius Johnny Chambers destroys the world. Yr humble correspondent, who did not check Goodreads before reading the first two Beneath the Rising books, thought that would be the end of the series. As an ending, it made a kind of grim sense: Johnny’s white girl privilege kept her from destroying the existential threat of the Ancient Ones, in favor of taking a riskier bet that winds up eliminating planet Earth but not the interdimensional eldritch horrors that threatened it. Meanwhile, protagonist Nick Prasad bore witness to the unspeakable loss he never quite believed his best friend was arrogant enough to allow.

If I questioned anything, it was Nick’s willingness to continue tagging along after Johnny—even given his secret goal of undermining her—in the full knowledge that she functionally enslaved him for most of their lives. Happily, the Nick of The Void Ascendant has no such illusions. He rightly holds Johnny responsible for the deaths of everyone he loved, everyone she loved (which, okay, is nobody), and their entire planet. Although Johnny is no longer exactly herself, Nick still spends most of the book confidently reminding the other characters that she can’t be trusted to lead the rebellion against Them, no matter how good a game she talks or how many fingers she may have sacrificed in her quest to destroy Them. (She also has scales and a dorsal fin. I prefer not to think about this too much, as I am quite susceptible to body horror and arguably should not be spending my time reading books with the word eldritch in the descriptions.)

Nick starts the book, then, as the servant of a nation that in turn serves Them humbly, without question, and has therefore avoided mass slaughter. Nick’s is a job that might get him dead at any moment, but in the meantime he tends to find it preferable to gallivanting after a scaled and waifish iteration of Johnny, now called Yenu, who seems just as likely to get more worlds destroyed as to strike even the most glancing blow against the Ancient Ones. With that problem cleared away, I was happy to spend another four hundred pages traipsing across landscapes with dubiously breathable oxygen, dubiously climbable hills, and dubiously crossable bridges, in search of various MacGuffins that Yenu kept insisting would do some good against the Ancient Ones.

If you are not a scientist, you may perhaps have felt slightly out of your death in the prior two books when Johnny rattled off the theoretical physics of her various schemes. As an extreme non-scientist, I kept getting hung up on how much of the science talk in Beneath the Rising and A Broken Darkness I was supposed to be grasping. (Other reviews suggest the answer is … some? Very unhelpful, Goodreads reviewers!) The third book in the trilogy is clearly a fantasy, however, which absolved me of the burden of worrying about what it all meant. The Ancient Ones can possibly be defeated by some even ancienter gods? Fine. Those gods are in magic prisons only accessible by magic means? Great! Now Nick has a dead god in his head getting into silent arguments with him? Fantastic; I have no follow-up questions.

Mohamed never goes easy on her characters, and even when they’re on the verge of a breakthrough, it’s obvious that another setback is lurking just around the corner. Possibly with tentacles. I would not have been surprised to learn that Mohamed writes video games for her day job, as there’s been an element of the walking simulator to the latter two books in this trilogy: Nick and Johnny/Yenu wander through worlds whose flora, fauna, and inhabitants are probably trying to kill them, overcoming obstacles that feel daunting only as long as you forget that they’re instigating a boss fight to end all boss fights—a war between gods to whom they are as dust specks. This makes for a wonderfully tense reading experience, keeping the reader engaged despite the stakes being simultaneously nonexistent (Nick has already lost everything he has to lose) and unthinkably vast (the Ancient Ones will conquer every world and every dimension unless someone stops them).

To add to the narrative’s interest, Mohamed cleverly subverts the tropes and expectations of the familiar story about a small but plucky rebel band gathering its forces for a final, probably doomed, battle against an unknowable evil. You can see Yenu telling herself that story, casting herself in the role of Aragorn—the righteous and rightful monarch marching into battle against all odds. Nick—like the book itself—knows better. Nick is Frodo, or possibly Gollum, caught up among vast forces he hates and fears and wants no part of, making the thankless trek into Mordor to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom.

Yenu is the Ring.

The relationship between Yenu and Nick continues to fascinate, forming as it does a chilling analogue to Johnny’s relationship with the Ancient Ones. Finally stripped of his illusions about Johnny (who, as a reminder, made Nick’s permanent devotion to her a condition of her bargain with the Ancient Ones), Nick knows that he’s spent his life as her pawn. Yet he continues to hope that he can claw back some good out of this relationship—so central to his life and yet so deeply exploitative—that has taken everything from him. In A Broken Darkness, he still imagined that goodness might, in the end, be uppermost in Johnny. In The Void Ascendant, of course, he knows better. As Sam Wilson once said of Bucky Barnes, “I don't think he's the kind you save. He's the kind you stop.” Nick knows that when the time comes, he may be the only person who can stop Johnny.

It’s no coincidence that in her pre-scales life, Yenu was (and spiritually still is) a conventionally attractive, thin, able-bodied, wealthy white woman who is accustomed to getting exactly what she wants at the exact moment she thinks to want it. Even now that some of her privilege has been stripped away from her, she still wears it like a habit and wields it like a weapon. Many of the characters believe in her, at least enough to fall in line with her plans; Nick did, once. Now, he’s constantly searching for signs that Yenu may be working for Them. He knows through bitter experience how easily They can subvert the intentions of those they subjugate in order to further their own agenda. In that, there’s little to choose between Yenu and Them, a Scylla and Charybdis that each represent the monstrosity of privilege and power.

But love is a difficult habit to break, and perhaps not one even worth breaking. At some points in the book, Nick chooses his anger with Johnny above his love for her, and at others he chooses love. Said another way, he chooses to believe in her sometimes, and other times not. Mohamed does not cast either choice as the wrong one. The good Johnny has done for the world—prior to literally ending it, which neither I nor Nick can emphasize enough—does not cancel out the bad, but nor are her breakthroughs in bionic prostheses, water purification, and environmental repair on Earth anything to sneeze at. Time and again, Nick has seen her refuse to give up her own power in the service of the noble aims she claims she wants. Time and again, too, he has seen her use that same power to make the world better. Ultimately, when Nick chooses to believe in Johnny, it’s not the woman he’s choosing, with all her superiority and disregard for others and towering arrogance. Battered by a world in which he’s weary of being a pawn and uninterested in being a player, when Nick chooses Johnny, he’s really choosing hope.

Jenny Hamilton writes about books for Booklist and Lady Business, among others. She is a blogger and podcaster at Reading the End, named after her disconcerting (but satisfying) habit of reading the end of books before she reads the middle. Her reading enthusiasms span from academic monographs to fan fiction, and everything in between.
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