Highly Recommended – Premee Mohamed’s globe-trotting sci-fantasy cosmic horror alt-history adventure debut doesn’t exactly shatter genre conventions as much as pants them and run away giggling. The novel has a kind of nervous energy that is both puckish and disarming, like a court jester whose council the king values.
Beneath the Rising begins in Alberta, Canada, not long after the September 11, 2001 hijackers failed to bring down the World Trade Center in New York. Many of the world’s biggest problems have already been solved—or soon will be—thanks to teenaged super-genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers, a multi-billionaire who has been making earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs since the age of four: rewriting the laws of physics, curing every illness from HIV to Alzheimer’s, etc., and who now has her sights set on renewable energy. You would think this gender-reversed take on the “boy genius” trope would be the hero of the novel, but that burden rests on the shoulders of Johnny’s long-suffering, distressingly ordinary best pal Nick Prasad, who also narrates. Soon after Johnny shares her latest triumph with Nick, an extra-dimensional eldritch terror called Drozanoth harasses and tries to threaten Nick into handing over Johnny’s newest invention. Johnny already knows exactly what Drozanoth is, where it comes from and what it wants. With their families’ lives and the world’s survival at stake, Johnny drags the hapless Nick into a world of international conspiracies and secret societies, Ancient Ones and Elder Gods, as the two teenagers search for a way to stop unimaginable evil from overrunning the Earth.
Despite being a little plot-heavy at times, Beneath the Rising is an attention grabbing romp that separates itself from the pack with its brisk pace, acerbic humor and fiendish world-building. Mohamed exploits the contrasts between the two lead characters to great comedic and dramatic effect. Johnny—white, pretty, blonde, rich and absurdly good at everything—can’t help but take the lovelorn, otherwise friendless Nick for granted. For his own part, Nick must tamp his pride down and keep his unrequited feelings in check just to hang on to her coattails, but he’s also self-aware enough to question the wisdom of his devotion. Mohamed never lets us forget that these differences matter: conflicts born of class, gender and race periodically bubble to the surface in the tension between them.
Sometimes I felt the novel was too narrowly focused on Nick and Johnny, leaving secondary characters to serve as little more than props and obstacles. But overall, Beneath the Rising is way too imaginative and way too much fun to miss.