A Broken Darkness — When the Light at the End of the Tunnel is But a Candle

Beneath the Rising was one of the early Dark Horses of last year, and boy, oh boy did it pack a punch. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but Premee Mohamed decided to grace us with one anyway. If her debut novel had my curiosity, the follow up has my attention. A Broken Darkness is a strong follow up that builds on the foundation of its predecessor and delivers strong writing through great characterization. This review is primarily for those who have read the first novel, though some spoilers have been avoided. So if you haven’t I would recommend checking out our review of Beneath the Rising here instead.

Following the events of the first book, A Broken Darkness follows Nick Prasad on another dark adventure with his estranged friend and world renowned genius Johnny Chambers. They had managed to seal away the Ancient Ones, but their friendship was destroyed in the process. Johnny has another amazing reveal, promising the future of clean energy, and Nick is sent by the Ssarati Society to witness the event. While there, something happens that shouldn’t have, They have returned and in an even stronger fashion than before. Johnny says she didn’t know and was sure she sealed them away forever. However, Nick has his doubts, while also fearing that she may be the only one to save them once again.

Mohamed does a great job diving right back into the fray with A Broken Darkness. Nick’s head is just as jumbled as it was before, and in some ways he’s even worse off. The revelations of his relationship to Johnny at the end of Rising have clearly fractured his mind, and his choice to walk away from her only splintered it more. He constantly seems at war with himself, trying to convince himself that Johnny has every intent to save the world again, while having trouble with the fact that she has previously let him down. At times it gets a little repetitive, but Mohamed approaches it freshly enough that it didn’t feel like it was dragging. It helps that Nick’s mind and his body feel completely separated. He thinks one thing, but acts another in front of her, as if he can’t quite break the hold she has on him. This is excellently conveyed through their great chemistry, and his constant berating of her within his head. It’s painful to watch, but easily conveys the nature of their toxic relationship and feels realistic given their history and the events they are living through.

The story is still rip-roaringly fast. Nick and Johnny are globetrotting again to new places and also seeing some familiar faces. It’s fun, and at times scary. The lengths they go through to find the information they need are astounding. Mohamed is pretty good at reminding readers who specific beings are, and what purpose they had in the previous story without taking you out of the flow too. The writing is still incredible, specifically within Nick’s head. There are a few times where the dialogue was a little much, particularly when Nick and Johnny would share references to each other. There were times when it felt purposefully out of place, like Nick was caught in the trap of Johnny’s presence and needed to please her. Other times it just felt like it was filling space. Overall it wasn’t that big a deal to me, even with the pop culture references, because they felt real for the most part. It’s as if the only way to close the distance between them is through a shared superficial past. Darkness is filled with moments like this that remind you of who Nick wants to be, while constantly reminding you of who he is and how it’s directly tied to Johnny.

Rising was great at highlighting the racial and class tensions between Johnny and Nick, and Darkness is no different. In fact, Mohamed doubles down on the race and class aspects, making them impossible to ignore. The ties between these two tensions run incredibly deep between the two books and it’s impossible to cover them without spoilers. To avoid them, I want to highlight a few ways Mohamed weaves them into the narrative, keeping the story going while alluding to the darker themes hiding in the shadows. The phrase that reverberated through my mind as I read this book was “she can’t keep getting away with it!” Johnny constantly thinks she can do whatever she wants to save the day. Many times the Ssarati Society, a secret organization of watchers that Nick now belongs to, tries to foil her plans, but often Nick gets in the way. Johnny can never be defeated, and often brushes Death’s shoulder while pulling off some grand scheme. And Nick, for all his internal bluster, lets her get away with it and fights for her, even though he hates her. It leads to a somewhat baffling but terrifying climax that doesn’t attain the heights of the previous book. However, it made me do a double take so I could be sure I read it right, and it really clarified the rest of the book for me.

If you enjoyed Beneath the Rising, I am sure you will enjoy this one too. In some ways it’s a little more of the same, but Mohamed has gotten sharper. It’s semi-repetitive nature feels like a feature, begging to be examined instead of brushed off. Nick’s point of view is messy and it’s hard to trust him and those he embeds himself with. There were fewer moments of dread from the Ancient Ones this time around, but it felt far more tailored to Nick and Johnny’s relationship, and Johnny’s hubris. The ending is definitely worth the read on it’s own, but the journey only makes it more horrifying. While it does not break new ground in the way it’s predecessor did, A Broken Darkness still represents a great addition to this story. If you haven’t picked up either book, and are curious about Lovecraftian inspired horror with a modern twist, I implore you to read them.

Rating: A Broken Darkness – 8.0/10

The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed, then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first page to the last.

From our review: “This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.”

The Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

Beneath The Rising – On Top of Its Game

I have always been enticed by cosmic horror and other Lovecraft adjacent stories, but I never really dove into the genre. It’s always lurking in the background, taunting me with its perceptions of madness. Luckily for me, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath The Rising is a Lovecraftian story filled to the brim with horror, adventure, a dash of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced adventure. Beneath the Rising follows two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and on the eve of destruction as they sort out their friendship and try to contain the Lovecraftian consequences of their decisions. Written through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Nick Prasad, the story explores the nature of cultural and class differences, shared traumas, and teenage romance as the characters attempt to save the world from Eldritch horrors.

The story begins when Johnny, Nick’s childhood friend and supergenius, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers”, returns from her latest travels of the world and shows Nick her latest experiment, a new unending source of clean energy. Upon activating the device, strange beings start appearing and harassing the two teenagers. Soon, Johnny reveals to Nick that she fears she has awoken the Ancient Ones, beings she has learned about through the various scientific societies she is a part of. Nick is inadvertently pulled into the chaos of Johnny’s quest to save the world by virtue of being her closest friend, even though he feels he barely knows her. He’s poor, of Indian descent and secretly in love with Johnny, a rich, white supergenius who flies around the world. 

Mohamed’s ability to explain the world through Nick’s eyes is wonderful. I sometimes felt lost, but it seemed like a deliberate choice, becauseNick’s consciousness switched between memories and current events with no real transition. It was as if I was reading someone’s thoughts while they were trying to parse what was happening in front of them and also reconciling it with a memory it triggered. These were the only times I felt pulled out of the book, but it gradually became less jarring as I attuned to the style. Nick felt like a teenage boy, aware of the seriousness at hand, but willing to take a crack at a joke to impress his friend. He referenced pop-culture a decent amount, but mostly because that was the easiest way to relate to the absurd situations he found himself in. Normally, I cringe at pop culture mentions, but they felt natural here in a way I have not experienced before. It felt like Mohamed purposefully wrote them as a point of contact for Nick to make sense of the world instead of being used to relate to the reader, and that is refreshing.

With the story being told in the moment through Nick’s point of view, the pacing is fun and frenetic. It conveys a sense of what Nick and Johnny must be feeling as they face the end of the world. There are constantly new threats that must be dealt with, or a new library to get to in order to find a way to defeat the Ancient Ones. Mohamed’s strength as an author is not just in her ability to keep the plot moving, but also giving the characters room to breathe and process what they just went through. Johnny lends an air of “whatever, I see crazy stuff all the time,” while Nick is still playing catchup and questioning the nature of their friendship, let alone the nature of the cosmos. Their fights with each other hit hard, and the reconciliation is earned if it even happens. Their relationship is truly engrossing as it’s pushed to the limits as these two teenagers travel across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Even more astounding is Mohamed never let the larger plot fade away and lose relevance, having it hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles. It put a lot of pressure on the story and kept pulling me to the next page.

I am not an avid reader of Lovecraft, but even so, something about the way the mythos is used felt refreshing. The Ancient Ones were always within reach, but rarely ever in sight, adding an increasing amount of tension. This might be disappointing for some, but I did not mind it. The first time “something” showed up in the story, I felt my blood run cold and I owe that to Mohamed’s careful and deliberate revelation of the world. My feelings as a reader often seemed to mirror Nick’s, unsure of what was going on and always needing an explanation, but only able to get a little bit from Johnny. It felt like a madness creeping into Nick’s brain, as if what he was going through could not possibly be real, but there was no other explanation. Moments that were humorous could also be easily turned on their heads as moments of horror. I never got the sensation that I missed the cue, however, as if Mohamed was hinting at the ambiguity for a reason and making me think about how teenagers would handle themselves in these terrifying situations.

The last aspect of the book that really gripped me, however, was just how insidious every interaction felt. Mohamed starts the story off with a moment of alternative American history in which 9/11 happens, but the planes miss. Similar tensions still pervade the western hemisphere, however, and Nick receives some of the backlash as an Indian person born and raised in Canada. It felt real, and as if Mohamed looked at me through the pages of her book, and asked “are you paying attention?” I could not stop looking for the little ways this change wove its tendrils into how Nick and Johnny engaged each other and the world given their backgrounds. I felt every word and turn of phrase had to be dissected. Being inside Nick’s head only fine-tuned this notion, making Johnny feel unreliable and dodgy in response to his inquiries. It was bold, and I felt it paid off immensely through the rest of the story.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters. I had a blast, and this book makes me want to dive further into the genre. So, if you feel its pull even slightly, its worth it to answer its call.

Beneath The Rising: 8.0/10