‘The Tower of Zhaal: Cthulu Armageddon Book 2’ - Book Review

Bobbie’s expression was grave. “The Faceless Ones are a new race, or to be precise, a very old race that has been in hiding for a long time.” Bobbie looked uncomfortable even talking about them. “They have begun building their strange machines and terrible devices across the world.  No one knows to which gods, if any, they pray, but the ywield knowledge as to make the University look like a tribe of cavemen.”

“Great,” Mercury grunted.  “Because we didn’t have enough crazy-ass shit on this trip.”

***

When we last left John Henry Booth at the end of Cthulu Armageddon, he had finished his mission to seek out and kill the man who engineered the death of his squad… and who transformed him into an unspeakable evil along the way…

Now, a year later, branded with the Hand of Nyarlathotep, a touch from the Elder Gods that would kill a normal man, it’s instead transforming him into something else, something darker.  The chitin shell growing up his right arm is only an outer symptom of the alien poison inside him.  It’s the knowledge of mankind’s coming extinction that bothers him more.

C.T. Phipps’ second entry into the Cthulu Armageddon universe packs a stunning wallop.  Sure, it’s got the requisite battles between vast demonic hordes and their unspeakable maddeningly glimpsed masters, and a body count that puts the opening to Saving Private Ryan to shame.  Multi-dimensional killing machines stalk the few remaining humans, killing them for food or for sacrifice… and sometimes not even waiting for the killing part.  Yes, it has an undeniable prophecy about the fall of humanity and the eradication of our world as a snack for vast uncaring beings.  It’s got all the things that make the Lovecraft milieu so appealing.  Phipps has that existential dread and gallows-humor ennui down to an artform by this point.  But it’s his storytelling that raises this piece above the standard fare.

They call it a Post-Apocalypic Western, and again, like Cthulu Armageddon, that’s mostly true.  It’s a roller-coaster of a story that takes place in a seething dead wasteland, where life is cheap and afterlife is often cursed.  And Booth is again called into service by a group of dark mystic scholars who want him to track down a wizard who seeks to awaken an unrelenting force that will hasten the demise of all life on the planet.  In return, they’ll grant him and his team their deepest wishes.  For Booth, this is a return of his dwindling humanity.

So, saddled with a group of headstrong fighters and magic users, and a former ally who tried to kill him, Booth leads his band out into the chaos, destined for the Tower of Zhaal, an accursed place that resides in all dimensions.  I get it.  We’re seeing the End Times version of the Magnificent Seven.  Perfect.  Fits exactly into the genre and the world.  He’s got his bandits, his ne’er-do-wells, his untrusting Samuari - all following him into the crackling danger, a path already laid heavy with traps of the physical and metaphysical kind.  I understand perfectly.

But then Phipps quietly tips his hand about halfway through. Sure, it’s dressed up as a Western. Sure, it looks like bloody outtakes from The Walking Dead.  Yes, it’s got all the bells and whistles of a page-turner straight out of the pages of Weird Tales.  But there’s more under the hood than you think at first glance.

As Booth and company move deeper and deeper into the wild places and closer to their goal, his already tenuous grip on his humanity grows more and more imperiled, and as it does, he realizes more and more what it means to be human.  About how even the most grotesque monsters can have a humanity at their core, while the seemingly innocent can harbor demons of a non-Elder nature.

Yeah, Phipps has gone past Lovecraft.  He’s channeling Joseph Conrad now.  This is his homage to Heart of Darkness. His Apocalypse Now.  His treatise on humanity, set against the Mountains of Madness and the Color Out of Space.

Booth and his team are making a journey every bit as significant as Willard up the Mekong into Cambodia, as Marlow up to Congo into Darkest Africa to kill Kurtz.  And like them, along the way, Booth is forced to confront his own demons and question everything he knows about sacrifice and loyalty and love and trust.  What does he find at the end of his journey?

Pick up the book and find out.  The devil is in the details (as it were), and Phipps delivers on every promise he makes… including an appearance by the title character.

***

“It hadn’t been adultery, though I’d been guilty of plenty of that during my first marriage, as monogamy had never been an expectation with Mercury.  She’d been with other men and woman as part of her liberation from a hideous marriage to a New Arkham man decades her senior.  Hell, back when I was still human-seeming, we’d made regular visits together to the closest brothel.

Still, I’d felt guilty finally touching Jessica in the way I’d dreamed about for years.  It had been a respite from the horrors of my advancing mutation and made me feel human in a way I hadn’t since Mercury decided not to carry our child to term.  I’d fallen asleep, only to be awoken by the sounds of her moving around the room.  Followed by the orihalcum bullets she’d put in me from the foot of the bed.

I could have forgiven her for trying to kill me.  I couldn’t forgive her for making me feel loved first.”



Verdict:        FIVE Colorless Eldritch Shades out of FIVE

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