I have to get caught up in the Arcadian universe of Greig Beck. I've been jumping between the Arcadian novels, like Black Mountain, and this breakoff series about Arcadian's sometimes-assistant Professor Matt Kearns. While Book of the Dead was fun in a lot of ways, there were a lot of universe continuity issues, as well as a hefty dose of Gary Stu Syndrome.
Beck's inspiration here is H.P. Lovecraft.
I'll wait while like half the Internet recoils in horror because yep, good ol' H.P. Lovecraft was SUPER RACIST. I know. However, I find it difficult to ignore the impact of his stories, particularly on the speculative fiction yet to come.
On the personal reprehensibility scale, I find that HPL scores a solid Emperor Palpatine. I read a lot of Lovecraft's work when I was younger, and oddly, I don't remember some of the more horrid quotes about black people that he tossed in there. You can find them on the Internet. We know so much about HPL's views because of his addiction to letter-writing. I have a feeling that we would view many other classic authors differently if they had the volume of preserved correspondence that the Lovecraft estate maintains.
Take Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example. His books also contained racist views, but more people know about--and love--Tarzan than they do Cthulhu. Yet, I couldn't make it a quarter of the way through Tarzan of the Apes. There was so much white superiority in that book that I felt ill. You might argue that he, like Lovecraft, was "a product of his time." But you know what? People existed among their peers who knew that slavery was wrong; who knew that Jewish people weren't the Devil incarnate; who knew that you don't write sub-par poetry using the n-word. And yet HPL chose to do so. It's a choice.
So, while I like the ideas of the the Cthulhu Mythos, I in no way idolize or protect their creator. I'd recommend reading Tales from the Cthulhu Mythos to see how other authors have riffed on this version of the universe. I don't deny that HPL had a knack for evoking the menace that lurks in the autumnal New England countryside. I wish Miskatonic University were a real place that I could actually visit, rubbing shoulders with mad scholars and so forth. I also won't deny that HPL had issues with overwriting, and he relied so heavily on terms like "non-Euclidean" or "cyclopean" that I often wanted to scream.
Anyway, all of that is to say that I enjoy reading Cthulhu stories, and I really love it when authors incorporate this mythology into their writing, but I in no way approve of H.P. Lovecraft as a person.
However, after getting into Book of the Dead and realizing that Greig Beck was leading us on a hunt for the Necronomicon, I pretty much wanted to fist-pump. Beck also has some good notes in the back for readers who haven't read any Cthulhu stories. Unfortunately, Beck never quite achieved the level of menace and complete vulnerability felt when reading an original Cthulhu Mythos story.
In Book of the Dead, we begin with sinkholes opening up all over the world. But these sinkholes are too precise to be natural--opening directly under houses? When the military gets involved and sends down Andrew Bennet, a geologist, he realizes that the homes have been left untouched, but all organic matter, i.e. the inhabitants, have disappeared. There's a strange softness to the rock down there, too. And just before returning to the surface, Andy snaps a picture of a symbol that is utterly foreign to him.
Enter Matt Kearns: paleolinguist, would-be Casanova, and former companion of Arcadian and the HAWCS. Kearns knows that the world is much stranger and more frightening than civilians believe, and that the truth often is stranger--and deadlier--than fiction.
Now, here's one thing about the books that threw me for a loop: previously, Matt and his student/girlfriend (ew!) saved the world from a deadly plague of mites, but the epilogue of The First Bird states that after the red rains that wiped out the mites, children were born with deformities, and the magical red flowers grew everywhere. The country had been under a level-5 pandemic alert, and in Book of the Dead it's as if none of this ever happened. I guess Beck just retconned his entire universe without so much as a howdy-do.
So, anyway, here we are again, in a totally normal world that totally didn't have people turning into fungal spore factories. Matt is single, having broken up with Megan, and is also jobless. He applies at Harvard, but hark! Is that the siren song of contract work with the U.S. Government? Why, yes! Because of the strange symbol found by Andy in the sinkhole, Matt flies out to Nebraska, watches the ground eat people, and then flies home.
Ha! Just kidding. Actually, he's vaguely blackmailed by the president of Harvard to go to Syria to speak with another linguist who may have a lead on the sinkhole situation. O-kay, just go with it. This is actually where things start to get fun.
Matt is part of a team comprised of Andy Bennet, Tania Kovitz, an Army archaeologist, their commanding officer, Major Abrams, and some serious SEAL muscle. They arrive in Damascus and make it to the house of Doctor Hussein ben Albadi, who reveals that the sinkholes are just a harbinger of, well, the end of the world. Ooh, I love it when the end of the world happens!
But not just any good old end of the world scenario: think eldritch horrors. Dr. Albadi is in possession of fragments of the actual Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, written by Abdul Alhazred, the "Mad Arab," as referenced in H.P. Lovecraft. Dr. Albadi explains that Lovecraft's stories weren't fiction, but that he had gone beyond the veil and read some portion of the original Necronomicon, and attempted to warn us via his fiction.
The Old Ones are trapped inside the Earth, but also/maybe/kind of in another dimension? In any case, they can only get out when there is a planetary convergence (how convenient is that!). And the sinkholes are made by the shoggoths, those mindless beasts that serve the Old Ones, preparing the way for the coming of Cthulhu and the downfall of civilization. Oh, and the diet of Cthulhu and his ilk? People! Lots and lots of tasty people.
However, we know they can be halted, at least for a time. Al-Azif lived through a convergence and the world didn't go to pot then--so what did he do? How did he stop the gloriously betentacled ones from noshing on the Dark Ages population (although, to be honest, I don't think that the flea-ridden malnourished woebegones of that time period would be nearly as tasty as the plump people of today, but I digress)?
You know how in The Mummy, you can't read from the Book of the Dead, because you'll raise the dead?
Yeah, this situation is the opposite: the team needs the full Necronomicon text to decipher in order to find the incantation to shut the gates between worlds and keep Cthulhu out.
There's a lot of globetrotting that takes place here, from Syria to Egypt to Pharos to the U.S., but suffice it to say that the team captures the book, all while being dogged by Syrian rebels and a mysterious force that has infiltrated the team. If, like me, you suffered through the cringe worthy sexytimes, you know who the mole is. But gosh, I wish I'd know that was coming, because ... ew. This Matt Kearns, for all his intelligence, obviously doesn't care about STIs.
The secondary nemesis in the book is a cult of Cthulhu that has survived throughout the ages, with weird self-flagellating priests who also like to cut people up as torture. Charming. I didn't feel that this element was needed, but whatever.
In the end, it turns out that Cthulhu will emerge in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and everybody runs there, and there is lots of dying and pointless military maneuvers, but Magic Matt deciphers the secret writing in the Necronomicon and figures out how to stop the worldwide human buffet from beginning. Hooray! I mean, did you ever doubt it? That's what makes these books fun: you know what's going to happen in the end. There will be Great Loss and Personal Sacrifice and all that, and Beck is notorious for killing off well-liked characters, but humans will still prevail--even over the space out of time's eldritch horrors.
So really, plot-wise, there's nothing really new here. The inclusion of the Necronomicon as an actual book was very cool, as was directly pitting humans against the Old Ones. Unfortunately, there's very little character building, and before you say, "Oh, it's an action novel--there's never any character building," I can tell you that Beck can do a really good job of it in his Arcadian novels about Alex Hunter. Alex feels like a real person to me. So are many of his teammates and handlers. Matt Kearns is a Gary Stu, through and through. Stuff just happens to him. Women fling themselves at him. He possesses all these wild abilities to read Enochian and decipher five bazillion languages (approximately). He prevails when he doesn't deserve to.
I don't write for a living, but I would think that if you did, and if you set your novels in, say, the U.S., you'd try to write in their idiom, or at least find a copy editor who can catch the odd idiosyncrasies in language. Beck is Australian, so those Brit/Aussie words creep into the story and go "Boo!" and jolt you out of it. And it's not like they're obscure differences, either. Characters consistently run into "lifts" and use "the car park." I mean, I could buy this is Matt were a visiting professor from the University of Sydney or something, but he's definitely supposed to be an American.
Beck also seems to have a bit of trouble with Mammoth Cave--although it's a cave system, and rightly could be called "Mammoth Caves," we don't say that. It's just ... Mammoth Cave. I've been there. It's big and dark and creepy. But I've never heard anyone refer to it in the plural. Also, I've never seen "Hooah!" written as "HUA!" It's two syllables: Hoo-ah. Inquiring minds want to know: what do Australian special ops teams yell to get themselves psyched up for combat?
I guess Chipotle doesn't exist in Australia (I am sorry), but the author seems to think that it is a sit-down restaurant. No--it's like Subway, but with burritos.
Hands down, the best quote of the book goes to: "The group looked as Syrian as the Bee Gees." Yep, stayin' alive. It's what humanity does.
So, to sum up: it's an uneven book with fun references to the Cthulhu Mythos. If you haven't read those stories, this probably won't make a lot of sense, but Beck does his darndest to try and explain it. I liked that Adira Senesh came back as a main character and wasn't mooning all over Alex Hunter the whole time. However, I never felt that sense of menace and lingering madness that leaps off the pages of the original Cthulhu stories. It may, once again, be time to walk back to the hallowed halls of Miskatonic University, but this time I'll consider how Lovecraft's racism informed the creation of his monsters while I wonder at the ideas in the realms outside of time and space.