A review of A Broken Darkness by Premee Mohamed

At one point in A Broken Darkness, Johnny, one half of the binary vascular system that gives life to both this novel and its predecessor Beneath the Rising, gets a call from David Bowie. Johnny has to ask if she can call Bowie back as she's busy. And in this alternate noughties world that Premee Mohamed has created for her intergalactic cthuloid romance, it is entirely possible that when Bowie called Johnny he was in the midst of writing or recording 'New Killer Star', a song which turns out to be eerily prescient and which invites us to view Mohamed's marvellous novel through the rose-tinted lenses of Bowie's early-noughties output. There is, certainly, a skillful slow burn as the reader goes on a tour of a familiar (but somewhat scorched and bloodied) Edinburgh; and there is a sense that Nick, the other of the novel's hearts, is torn between continuing to be Johnny's slave and hitting the mad genius in the side of the head with a sharp rock; and there are rays, so many rays: bright light stark against the night, and set against the dark that is always descending towards Nick and Johnny and towards us, the page-turning hordes.

In our world, Bowie began working on the album Heathen before the attacks which took place on 11 September 2001, but completed it and released it after, in 2002. In the alternate post-9/11 world of Nick and Johnny, the Twin Towers are still standing and Heathen is presumably still a masterpiece, but reality is different (see Beneath the Rising for details). In Mohamed's parallel universe, Reality, the album Bowie released in 2003 right after Heathen has probably also seen changes. There might never be a 'great white scar / Over Battery Park' in this fictional dimension, but maybe a few magic particles slipped through between dimensions during all that muon-crunching and electron-bashing and the world gets to sing itself out to the waveforms of 'New Killer Star', because without going into details, there is a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff in A Broken Darkness. There are also scars left from the events of the previous novel in this duology, some of which reside within the characters and some of which lead to all manner of horrifying flying creatures with human faces stretched out over their wings. Nick's scar is that he's still in that idiot trance known as love and he has to take the role of the Companion, asking idiot questions, gently pleading for answers that use short words, so the reader can fully appreciate the mad genius that is Johnny/Joanna/John.

Nick's inability to shake Johnny is central to both Beneath the Rising and A Broken Darkness. The heart's filthy lesson is not lost on him, but that doesn't help. He gets numerous opportunities to break through to Johnny ('If there was only something between us / Other than our clothes' — at one point, the only thing between Johnny and Nick is the fabric of their coats; later they are separated by the fabric of a dimension) and he gets through/almost gets through to her before becoming the luckiest/loneliest guy in the universe (delete as applicable, depending on your perspective). Johnny and Nick's relationship is about as dysfunctional as you can get this side of an event horizon. This dynamic continues to the end and along the way Mohamed introduces strange and wonderful worlds and abominable creatures and a small ensemble of memorable supporting players. The new characters in A Broken Darkness burst to life with the alacrity of a just-electrocuted Frankenstein's monster (Dr. Huxley is marvellous and should be played by Kate Mulgrew in the forthcoming adaptation) and the dialogue is charged with wit. Mohamed's short It takes a real love of craft to write a book that eliminates so many souls from the face of the planet and still make readers laugh out loud, to almost the bitter end.

For various reasons Johnny doesn't call Bowie back (which is a shame, as he might have had some words of advice and encouragement) and things get complicated. There is action and horror and wonder and Nick (O, Nick…) is left with his crazy brain in tangles as he tries to save the world (again) by helping (again) the person who has something of a reputation for blowing things up (colliding supercolliders together through the crust of the planet is just such a Johnny-fucking-Chambers thing to do) and who almost certainly won't listen to him. As Ziggy sang, 'love descends on those defenseless' and is 'careless in its choosing'. Nick is just a young dude in love with a girl from Mars and he makes for such a compelling hero because in spite of his scars and wounds, he's always (come on, Nick…) stubbornly trying to keep it all together. In the third book of the cycle there may well be a better future, but it's also possible that nothing remains, at least as we know it. Is love truly lost? This timeless, multiversal, dimension-wrenching romance will contne. Nick Prasad will be back. Ready, set, go.

The cover of Premee Mohamed's novella A BROKEN DARKNESS