The Last Ritual
With every title that they release, Aconyte Books – the publishing arm of Asmodee Entertainment – becomes more and more impressive and more and more accomplished as a publisher. They’ve released some fantastic books in their relatively short history, all based on the board games and RPG systems that their parent company are licensed to produce. From the light-hearted craziness of the sci-fi/fantasy mashup that is the KeyForge CCG (the Tales of the Crucible anthology) to the spirit-haunted lands of the Legend of the Five Rings setting (Curse of Honor) and the dark fantasy RPG Descent: Journeys in the Dark (The Doom of Fallowhearth), Aconyte have blended together exciting settings with some of the best scifi and fantasy authors in the genre to create memorable, engaging and hugely entertaining novels and anthologies. But out of all of the properties that they are leveraging, by far my favourite is the occult detective, Lovecraftian setting that is Arkham Horror. I have fond memories of playing games of Arkham Horror in the ever-increasing distance of my teenage years, and the Occult Detective/Lovecraftian genre is perhaps one of my most favourites to read and review. The first book in the revamped Arkham Horror series, Wrath of N’Kai, perfectly set the tone for the series, in my opinion; written by veteran occult detective and sci-fi author Josh Reynolds, it delivered atmosphere and sinister characters in spades, and deserved to take pride of place in anyone’s occult horror collection.
Given how well the series had started, I was beyond eager to see how it would continue, and was deeply intrigued by S.A. Sidor’s upcoming The Last Ritual. The cover art is a lavish and detailed affair, illustrator John Coulthart perfectly bringing to life the Jazz Age decor of the Arkham Horror setting; and the back-cover blurb sounded hugely promising, mentioning surrealism, paintings that invoke occult rituals, and blurring the boundaries between nightmare and reality. Although I hadn’t heard of the author before now, his previous titles for Angry Robot had excellent reviews (and indeed The Institute for Singular Antiquities duology spoke so strongly to me that they’re now on my short-list to review later this year) which again pointed to Aconyte Books picking the cream of the crop when it came to this particular genre. All in all it seemed really exciting, and I couldn’t wait to dive in and get reading.
Our story’s protagonist is Alden Oakes, scion of one of the richest families in all of Arkham, and a man who has floated through life courtesy of the monies and luxuries provided by his parents and his family name. He is a talented artists, specialising in paintings, but has found himself struggling in the decadent, post-Great War years, unable to truly paint anything that seems memorable or truly talented. That all begins to change on the beaches of Cannes, when Alden suddenly finds himself confronted by Preston Fairmont, an old university friend and dilitante who unexpectedly invites Oakes back to Arkham, as a guest for Preston’s marriage to Oakes’ ex-fiancee. Oakes is surprised by the invitation, and even moreso by Preston’s bizarre and erratic behaviour, but agrees to travel back through Europe and then over the Atlantic, back to Arkham and his family and friends. His return journey takes him through isolated, rural towns and villages in Spain, and an attempt to tour through the crowded streets of Barcelona instead devolves into his attendance at a deeply unsettling and esoteric ceremony; he becomes enmeshed in a bizarre ritual involving strange, puppet-like figures, eerie chanting, and the presence of an intimidating figure with a forked beard that seems strangely familiar to Alden.
Making his escape after the end of the ritual and crossing the Atlantic, Alden returns to Arkham and his ancestral home, eventually joining up with Preston and his fiancée Minnie. But his friend’s behaviour becomes increasingly eccentric, worrying the painter, and to further compliance matters Alden becomes involved with Nina, a mysterious writer who wishes to investigate a series of accidents, suicides and murders involving artists that has suddenly occurred across the whole of Arkham. Slowly but surely drawn into a side of Arkham he had little awareness of, Alden is confronted by horrifying ritual murders, disappearing decapitated bodies, and inexplicable, inhuman monsters that pursue him across the murky backwaters of Arkham. Being invited to join the mysterious and secretive art commune known as the New Colony seems to be a huge break for Alden as an artist, inspiring him to great feats of painting, but his painting and the murders soon become inextricably twisted together in the New Colony. The arrival of the strange and highly charismatic surrealist artist Juan Hugo Balthazarr to the New Colony seems to promise new heights of pageantry and inspiration; but instead, Alden and Nina find themselves drawn into incomprehensible occult rituals, which begin to have terrifying implications for the residents of the New Colony, as well as all of Arkham.
Set in media res, Sidor opens the novel with Oakes a famous artist, returning to Arkham and the infamous Silver Gate Hotel to be interviewed by a young journalist. The newspaperman hopes to get a big story out of the painter, a man who seems to have aged far faster than his physical years, and who begins to describe the path that led him to fame and fortune. It’s a really effective framing device that neatly sets out the broad contours of the plot – surreal art, a strange fire, a reclusive and mysterious artist with a horrifying tale to tell – and irresistibly draws you into the rest of the story. Sidor has a way of writing prose that perfectly embodies the nightmarish and surreal themes of the Arkham Horror setting; throughout the novel, as the narrative deftly unwinds and hooks you in further, Sidor maintains an unsettling and even anxious atmosphere that greatly enhances a story brimming with unreal imagery and which forces the reader to question just which elements – if any – are real and actually occurring. His prose is superbly constructed, drawing you in without even realising it; I read the majority of The Last Ritual in the course of a single day, losing track of the hours as I turned the pages. That brilliant prose supports a deeply compelling narrative, one which develops quickly and effectively, always having a twist or turn to make you turn the page and begin the next chapter; you feel like you’ve been inducted into the ethereal world of the New Colony yourself, experiencing the frantic highs and terrifying lows of Alden’s investigation into the occult through his eyes.
The writing is superb, and the plot enthralling, but the characters are perhaps the finest part of The Last Ritual, and which for me elevated the book as one of the best Aconyte have published so far. It would have been so very easy for Sidor to fall into the clichés and tropes which litter the occult and Lovecraftian genres, and give us two-dimensional artistes who foolishly dabble with things they do not understand in the pursuit of their art. But instead, Sidor gives us some engaging and three-dimensional characters who always seem to act on their own initiative, and not just because the plot and page-count demand it. Alden is a detached and adrift protagonist, looking for meaning in his life, but importantly he is already a talented painter in his own right, even if looking for something to perfect his art; Sidor does not fall into the trap of giving us the generic ‘common-place artist desperate to be great’ protagonist so often seen in these sorts of tales. And Balthazarr makes for a memorable and delightfully bombastic antagonist, a wraithlike character who seems happy to taunt Alden and sting him with verbal barbs while turning the population of the New Colony into his willing puppets for his rituals and artworks. Indeed, all of the characters are fully fleshed-out and engaging – never a guarantee in the Lovecraftian genre, unfortunately – and Sidor also imbues them with this feeling of impermanence , a sort of semi-solidity that ties into the dream-like atmosphere of the novel as a whole. We’re never quite certain whether anything Alden is telling the journalist in the hotel room is real at all, or simply his own fevered and twisted imaginations, and the story is all the better for it. It creates a certain tension in the novel’s atmosphere, a certain expectation from the reader, which Sidor then deftly and unexpectedly shatters with an ending that I genuinely didn’t see coming. His knack for blending artist expression and Lovecraftian horrors really is the best that I’ve ever seen reading through the genre over the years, and is genuinely impressive.
Superbly written, deftly plotted, and imbued with Sidor’s absolutely phenomenal imagination and inherent understanding of the decaying, sumptuous décor of Jazz Age Arkham that hides a terrifying underside, The Last Ritual is one of the most enjoyable and memorable occult horror thrillers that I have read in a long time, and a fantastic addition to Aconyte’s Arkham Horror range. Sidor has delivered us a novel that perfectly embodies both Arkham Horror as a setting, and Lovecraftian Artistry as a concept, and I can only hope that editor Charlotte Llewelyn-Wells commissions further Arkham Horror books from him in the future. I would certainly pick them up and read them without hesitation, and I believe I would be far from the only one.