Wrath of N’kai
In the current climate, reading and reviewing horror titles really isn’t doing it for me, if I’m being completely honest – I think I need to do some reading (and reviewing) of titles that aren’t completely bound up in doom and gloom, and go for things that are at least slightly more upbeat in nature. A good way to start along that journey is to read the second Advanced Review Copy (ARC) I received from new publisher Aconyte Books: Wrath of N’Kai by Josh Reynolds, the first title in a new Arkham Horror series. This feels like it’s going to act a sort of ‘bridge’ for me, a stepping-stone from the horror genre staples that are my bread and butter on this blog, to some science-fiction and perhaps even fantasy titles.
I was a huge fan of the old Arkham Horror novels that came out about a decade or so ago, and was sad to see them go out of print and the brand seemingly go into retirement, so you can probably imagine just how excited I was to see that Aconyte Books had the license to start up a whole new series of Arkham Horror titles, starting with Wrath of N’Kai. The title is intriguing and suitably Lovecraftian in nature, and that gorgeous noirish front cover artwork, evoking the old 1930s and 1940s black and white films, is superlative work by illustrator Daniel Strange. In addition, Josh Reynolds is a brilliant writer who can twist and meld the occult detective genre to do weird and wonderful things, so I couldn’t wait to get reading and see what this new iteration of Arkham Horror had to offer me as a reader. Just who – or more likely what – is N’Kai; and what form will their wrath take?
After an unsettling, eldritch-drenched prologue that deftly sets up the background to the novel, and hints at some of the occult action to come in future chapters, we are introduced to our protagonist, Countess
Alessandra Zorzi, international adventurer and thief. She’s one of those occult detective characters that Reynolds is just so good at creating and then imbuing with unique and engaging attributes. Cool, calm and collected on the surface, but with her own fears and worries lurking just below it, she breezes through life as an aristocratic thief, stealing occult objects to the order of various clients. As the book opens, she’s on the way to a new job – stealing a strange preserved body recently unearthed in Oklahoma, and to be presented at the Miskatonic Museum in the infamous town of Arkham. It’s an unusual commission, especially as she’s uncertain how he actually got in contact with her to deliver the request, but money is money and she has little choice but to travel to provincial Arkham, Massachusetts.
Reynolds delivers a truly masterful depiction of Arkham and its ancient and often archaic architecture, as well as the constant, sinister air of wrongness that wreaths everything – the buildings, the weather, and most especially the people. He deftly builds up a picture of a slowly-expanding town in which modernity and antiquity clash, where everyone is hiding some sort of secret and no action, no matter how petty, is entirely innocent. There’s a great Prohibition-era atmosphere that runs throughout the entire book that helps to underpin the plot and draws you into the mystery and the action, with the plot flowing smoothly between formal locations like museums and hotels, and dingy hideaway bars and even less salubrious (and far more dangerous) places. It’s all artfully blended together to make something that is almost compulsively-readable.
The truth of Arkham and its unique nature is slowly but surely revealed to Zorzi, as it becomes obvious that the strange figure she is meant to steal is an unusual presence, even in her line of work. The mummy and its bejeweled mask has a strange presence, an eerie atmosphere to it, which is perhaps why she has been hired to steal it for a group of interested observers. However before she can do much more than reconnoitre the museum, a gunfight breaks out as a group of robbers attempt to steal the mummy; in the process Zorzi makes the mistake of looking into the mummy’s eyes, resulting in an unwanted, Lovecraftian-style look into the stygian depths of its memories. That results in a quick exit from the museum, but fleeing Arkham is impossible; she is pursued not just by the authorities, but also a strange, crooked creature swathed in a trench coat and possessing a terrifying face. Lacking options, Zorzi finds herself forced into pursuing the robbers and locating the mummy and its ancient secret.
As well as a fast-paced plot that twists and turns and keeps you on your toes, there’s also a nicely varied cast of characters that play with the tropes and stereotypes of the genre, and also the Arkham Horror game, while never being constrained by them. Reynolds successfully humanizes them, and as a result makes them interesting for the reader to follow along with. Zorzi is a enjoyable protagonist with a great suite of dry observations about American behaviours and attitudes, and surprising skills as a thief and investigator. She also has a fascinating backstory that’s revealed in dribs and drabs by Reynolds, one that takes the usual genre cliche, being scarred by wartime service and twists into something fresh and unsettling. Then there’s the dogged Abner Whitlock, investigator and ‘fixer’ for Argus Insurance, a blandly-titled company that has serious interests in occult items and occurrences. He’s a dogged investigator who has a grudge against Zorzi and won’t let her forget it, which adds an extra element of tension. Perhaps my favourite, however, was cab driver Pepper, someone with a deeply-hidden secret who becomes Zorzi’s guide and side-kick throughout the novel, as well as another perspective to the occultism on display in Arkham. They have an invaluable knowledge of Arkham and its surroundings, as well as a good heart despite often being out of their depth; Reynolds himself perfectly describes then when he writes that they were “at once naive and hardboiled” and that duality comes through as the plot darkens. There are also a brace of antagonists who I won’t go into to avoid any spoilers, but suffice to say they are highly competent, dangerous and terrifying in both their nature and the powers they wield, particularly the utterly inhuman N’Kai.
Wrath of N’Kai is the brilliant result of the new partnership between Aconyte Books and Josh Reynolds, and it has all the hallmarks of a classic occult detective horror title. There’s a cast of engaging, three-dimensional characters who belong to the genre tropes without being constrained by them; a deeply atmospheric setting in Arkham and its surroundings that Reynolds has skilfully developed; heaps of fist-swinging, gun-blazing action against human and inhuman foes alike; and finally, crucially, that stubborn, frantic and all too-human refusal to believe, truly believe, in the occult and supernatural until it is almost too late. But it’s not just all of that which makes Wrath of N’Kai such an enjoyable novel: it’s also that Reynolds obviously enjoyed writing it, and in doing so created an original title that feels like a game of Arkham Horror brought to life, while avoiding the common genre pitfalls of becoming predictable, or a mere pastiche of something greater. Ultimately, Wrath of N’Kai is yet more evidence, were it needed, that Reynolds is the reigning master of the occult detective genre. There is no-one who does it better, and Wrath of N’Kai should take pride of place in anyone’s occult horror collection.