Thursday 24 August 2023

The Ravening Deep: An Arkham Horror Novel by Tim Pratt - Book Review


'A nightmarish power unleashed from the depths infiltrates Arkham in this nautical-horror pulp adventure from the acclaimed  Arkham Horror  game world.

'When dissolute fisherman Abel Davenport discovers an ancient temple in the deep ocean, he under the influence of a long dead god. In his attempts to restore the god’s cult, Abel unleashes a plague of twisted doppelgangers on Arkham. Horrified by the consequences, Davenport realises that he alone cannot stop the monsters from resurrecting the Ancient One. Sometimes the only way to end one cult is to start another… Teaming up with redeemed cultist Diana Stanley and notorious thief Ruby Standish is the first step. The second is convincing Carl Sanford, the powerful leader of Arkham’s Silver Twilight Lodge, to join their cause. Together they might be the only hope of averting a cataclysmic eldritch invasion.'

It feels like it's been a long while since I was able to read an Arkham Horror novel (the start of the year was my last one), and it's so good to dive back into this universe; and The Ravening Deep is such an engaging, exciting, and tense novel that it stands out as one of the best examples of the series.

The start of The Ravening Deep focuses on a fisherman down on his luck, and at the end of his rope. Abel Davenport has lost his home, is living on a boat that's falling to pieces, and is barely making enough fishing to feed himself, with whatever little he does make doing towards drink. When a huge storm starts to roll in he's the only fisherman who heads out that day, part of him not caring if the storm ends up killing him. The sea is rough, and the ship goes down, and Abel loses consciousness. When he awakes he finds himself on a spur of rock jutting out of the middle of the ocean, a great stone spire in the middle of the sea. Finding a hidden cave on the spire, a cave bigger than it could possibly be, Abel discovers the remains of an altar, and a strange gemstone necklace. When Abel puts on the necklace he is assaulted with visions of a great, ancient power, one that needs his help to reawaken. Finding himself back on the mainland, Abel sets out to bring his new god back to life.

Jumping forward weeks, and now in the city or Arkham, we meet Diana, a young woman who moved to the city to open her own business. Trying to cater to the rich and powerful in Arkham, Diana joined the Silver Twilight Lodge, a well respected social club within the Arkham. However, Diana soon learns that the Lodge is the public face for a cult, one headed up by the powerful Carl Sanford, and Diana learns that there are dark things in the universe. Desperate to get out of the cult, and to bring it down, she encounters a drunk, dishevelled Abel in the alley behind her shop, and is ready to move him on when he mumbles something about the Lodge.

Once Abel sobers up he tells Diana about his story, about how the powers granted to him by his god allowed him to quite literally create a cult of his own, growing copies of himself; but that one of these copies called Cain, betrayed him. Learning that Cain is trying to access the Silver Twilight Lodge in hopes of stealing back a piece of his god, Abel and Diana agree to team up to stop him. It's then that they meet Ruby Standish, a daring female thief who's nearly killed by Cain's ever growing army of monstrous duplicate Arkhamites. Knowing that anyone could have been replaced, and that the fate of the world hangs in the balance, the three of them come up with a plan to try and stop Cain.

The Ravening Deep is part Lovecraftian cosmic horror, part crime caper, part cult thriller, and part Invasion of the Body Snatcher, and its utterly delightful in its execution. Tim Pratt does a wonderful job at weaving multiple narratives together, taking characters on separate paths and bringing them together in a way that not only feels believable, but creates new and exciting additions to the narrative. There are four main characters in the story, and each of them brings something new and interesting to the group.

Our first character, Abel, makes for an interesting figure, a man who'd given up on life and was ready to die who finds new purpose and meaning when he discovers an ancient power. But when we re-meet him in Arkham he's a drunk living in back alleys. His life fell apart a second time; but rather than give up, he gets inspired to fight against the dark forces that he's let loose on the world even if that likely means that he will die in the process.

Diana is an odd mirror for Abel, like him she got involved in a cult without knowing the full extent of what it was. Abel started his cult not really realising the evil of his god and what it would mean for the fate of the world, whilst Diana thought she was in a social club with some eccentric activities and a focus on history. When she's confronted with the true horror she's a part of she realises that she's been complicit in evil acts, and wants to try and make amends for it despite being wholly unequipped to do so. She's a kind and decent person who ended up making a few bad choices and is trying to make up for it. She's a kind of character that we rarely see in the Arkham Horror series, as we don't often see a cultist trying to make good.

Ruby, however, does feel a bit like characters we've seen in the series before. She's not the first female adventurer thief in the Arkham Horror line; the first book released (Wrath of N'Kai) featured a similar character in Countess Alessandra Zori. But despite being a recognisable archetype Ruby manages to feel different from the others that we've seen before. She has a sense of self preservation and greed that means whilst she does fall on the side of good she's not above skirting the line of bad if things require it. She's something of more in the grey than Abel and Diana, and her quick wits, her skills, and her ability to jump into action make her the most competent of the trio.

There is, however, another character we focus on, one who eventually comes to join the group in their fight against Cain and his cult. Carl Sanford. Sanford is an evil character. He knows that he's messing with dark powers, he's happy to make sacrifices to ancient powers, and he knows that he makes deals with monsters, but as long as it brings him power and wealth he doesn't care. He's cold, calculating, and puts his own interests first every single time. But thanks to the ever growing threat Cain presents he's forced to work alongside the real heroes of the book; and this is the best decision the book makes. Sanford should not be a hero, he shouldn't be working with the good guys, but he works so well as part of the team, and adds a lot of fun whenever he's with them. It takes the book from incredibly good to absolutely delightful to read.

Pratt has a lot of fun with the horror of the book too. The opening scenes with Abel finding the ancient church feel right out of Lovecrafts stories of discoveries of ancient civilisations and long dead religions. Cain's cults ability to replace and duplicate anyone means that both the heroes and the reader can never trust any character that comes along, and a simple scene like walking down the street becomes a tense moment as you're waiting for something bad to happen. And, there are also monsters. Ghouls, shoggoths, and monster men pop up here and there and add an extra dose of horror into the mix in wonderful ways.

The Ravening Deep is a incredibly well crafted story, one that draws you in super quickly and gets you interested in finding out what happens next. It's paced and structured in such a way that even the quieter moments feel tense and exciting, and there's always something new and exciting to discover. A masterclass in how to bring the game series to life.

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