This review is part of my judging effort for the SPSFC. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Team Space Lasagna’s Week 8 reading round threw The Threat Below, first book of the Brathius Legacy series, by J. S. Latshaw, to the literary wolves next.
The opening chapters of this book will either put you off or draw you in, I think. In my case, I was drawn in. And I wasn’t expecting to be! The style of storytelling and characterisation somehow reminded me of Jane Eyre, with a dash of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and all of it taking place on top of a mountain like if the soccer team from Alive had just stayed up there and built a village and leaned into the class divide for like three hundred years. And if that has either put you off or drawn you in, then I guess I’ve accurately summarised what the start of this story was like.
But yeah, I really quite enjoyed it and found that I liked the characters and cared about their strange, vaguely unsettling little lives. The use of Latin, starting with the labelling of the Before Times people as the Apriori, was very neat. It gave a sort of intellectual timelessness to the setting, which made sense given the way society had been divided into the upper-class Cognates (the intellectuals) and the essentially slave-class Veritas (the muscle). And no, that doesn’t go the way you’re thinking and it’s actually really well thought-out and constructed. The Latin also subconsciously planted the idea that modern civilisation as we know it is a fleeting and doomed thing, and that this is what the future holds. Full circle. Kind of. It’s weird. And it gets weirder.
“I’d rather something else, but this had to be.”
– hilarious yet very meaningful Brathius family motto
So I was drawn in, and with every new chapter came a new and slightly disturbing piece of information, all nicely woven into an almost joyously tropey “sheltered princess forbidden love set against backdrop of post-apocalyptic world gone mad” story. We find out that the average lifespan is little over forty years. We are left uncertain as to whether “ultralions” and “ultrabears” are terrifying new genetic hybrid monsters or something else (I won’t spoil it but it’s fucking great). We’re introduced to this broken-arse mountaintop community living in fear behind a log wall and weird mist-ring, telling stories about the horrors that destroyed the word that was.
And then of course our protagonists go down there because that’s the story. By that stage, I was already invested. I cared about Ice and Ad, and even (God help me) Rainy towards the final act. That’ll fucking teach me, I guess.
But yeah, it was a good read! I was not expecting any of what happened, and that’s super cool. When (again, not to spoil but) you start seeing point of view sections from characters you would not have expected to get any kind of point of view, it gets interesting. And then it continues to get more and more interesting from then on. And, as a brief aside, “mountain madness” (the Threat Below cannot get to the people on the mountaintop because of the lack of oxygen, that’s all you need to know) is the best name for altitude sickness ever. I’m going to call it that from now on, although admittedly my day-to-day life does not typically include much mountain climbing so it’s going to be an effort to slip it into conversations.
“In order to survive, you may someday be forced to take the form of a worm. But at least try to be an eagle first.”
– this book is very quotable
I had my doubts. When I found out the mountaintop folks didn’t even know what a hammer was, I had to wonder how they’d managed to last three hundred years. When the story seems to Shyamalan on us at the 45% mark, I groaned a little but kept reading. When Adorane desperately needed to get his head pulled off and shoved up his arse to symbolise the way he lived, but that didn’t happen, I clenched my teeth and fantasised about it until the end of the page, and then the next, and then the next. Sometimes you just have to do that, okay? It’s fine.
The love triangle was silly but oddly compelling, and at least there wasn’t a clear OH MY FUCKING GOD ARE YOU BLIND YOU DEFINITELY NEED TO GO WITH THAT ONE in there. I mean, like most love triangles the answer was “feed the male / males into a wood chipper and just go off and be awesome,” but while the uncertainty existed it was at least readable uncertainty. What was even more uncertain was whether that kiss that happened was actually a fuck, and I guess we can debate that until the next book and the arrival of the baby because it was definitely a fuck. But whatever.
Now, following the not-exactly-Shyamalan (or Shyamalanalike) at 45%, by the 70% mark this book kind of becomes fucking amazing, and the whole backstory and setting falls into place. This, of course, sets us up for a heartbreaking ending I really should have been ready for but wasn’t. It was gut-wrenching, but at the same time strangely liberating. I have to know more! Fortunately, there is more.
Well like I said, there was a kiss in it that I think a case can definitely be made for actually being a fuck, but aside from that there was a bit of teenage canoodling and a bit of fun non-human “ah, this is the thing we call the mating grapple” style clinical deconstruction. I’ll give this a “mountain madness” out of a possible “ocean madness … aqua dementia … the deep-down crazies … the wet willies … the screaming moist…”
Considering this is a post-apocalyptic survivor-story featuring biogen-hybrid killing-machine beasties that have wiped out most of humanity, there wasn’t a huge amount of gore in here. Just enough, really. Two-and-a-half flesh-gobbets out of a possible five for The Threat Below.
Look, I said the same thing during Waterworld and I’ll say it here. Three hundred years is not long enough for sharks to have gotten bigger. They’ve been pretty much the same for a decent chunk of a quarter-billion, they’re not about to change now. But I’m just saying that because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to put it. This was a deliciously WTFfy story and I really enjoyed it. At every turn, the reader will at once think they know what’s happening but also know there’s more to it. Frequently, when I read a story and feel this way, I know I’m going to be disappointed and there will turn out not to be anything going on under the surface, so I’ll have to make shit up. Not so this time! I’ll give this a furrythief out of a possible ultrabear. If you know, you know.
My Final Verdict
This story was actually amazing, but you do have to be drawn in by the small-scale and slow-burn social / personal stuff at the start, because it takes a while for that pay-off. It was different enough not to be boring, and even though it had a lot of clichés in there, it was self-aware and showed some solid chops. Also, since I already referenced Futurama, I’m with Bender. Kill all humans. For fuck’s sake. Four stars!