Onyx reviews: Ararat by Christopher Golden
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2/25/2017
Noah's Ark is an unlikely McGuffin for a novel, but the fact that the
Biblical relic might have been discovered after an
earthquake on the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey isn't the most important aspect of Ararat. The discovery
brings a diverse group of people to the archaeological site, and most of them
are truly interested in the artifact and its greater significance, but this
isn't a Da Vinci Code-esque book where the main drive is to divine the
importance of an earth-shattering religious icon.
The protagonists are an unlikely couple: Adam Holzer is Jewish, though
non-practicing, and his girlfriend, Meryam Karga, is Muslim. Meryam is impetuous
and volatile, whereas Adam can generally be called upon to keep calm during a
crisis. They are
adventure-seekers who have written about their exploits in some of the world's
most dangerous venues.
They were in the midst of working on their third book
(and trying to make wedding plans) when Meryam received a call from the man who
helped them climb Ararat once before, relating the rumor that the Ark had been
uncovered. It makes no sense that the supposedly
apocryphal vessel would come to rest four thousand meters above sea
level, Biblical stories notwithstanding, but they identify another grand adventure and
put aside their wedding plans to assemble a team to investigate.
They have to race against other Arkologists, determined to be the
first to the site, thereby laying claim to it. They record everything that happens for a documentary.
Their team includes archaeologists, representatives of the Turkish government,
linguistics experts, a United Nations
observer, and Ben Walker, an American who is supposedly from the National Science
Foundation but is actually an employee of
DARPA enlisted to determine if anything at the site can be weaponized for or
There's something else in the cavern that is formed from the decaying beams
of this ancient vessel, in addition to the mummified remains of numerous
individuals: a small coffin covered in ancient scripts and encased in bitumen
that contains a malformed and sinister corpse that starts people whispering about
demons. From the moment of its discovery, people are unsettled, physically
and emotionally. They start behaving oddly—more than can be explained by
altitude sickness. Some become violently aggressive. A Biblical scholar
recommends blowing up the face of the mountain and burying the cave for another
few thousand years. Some things are better left buried, he argues.
The strange corpse in the black coffin makes people of all faiths (and even
those with no faith) nervous. Adam remembers his grandmother, whose belief in
dybbuks was powerful enough to be contagious. While there is a fair amount of
theological discourse in the book, it is mostly civil and only a little of the
conflict arises from the fact that the group is composed of a religiously
diverse group. There are strict rules in place forbidding any action that might
be seen as an attempt to establish primacy among one of the several religions
represented. Though one team member is a Catholic priest, his presence is for
his linguistics expertise and not his religion.
Golden explores the difficulties women face in
leadership roles. Although Adam and Meryam are equal partners, Meryam is the
project leader, and it infuriates her when people bring issues to Adam to avoid
dealing with her. A Turkish mountain guide won't even address her directly, but that's only the most overt form of
misogyny that she confronts. There are other scenes where women take men to task
for arrogance and the presumption of superiority in situations where both
parties were equally culpable.
Walker is one of the most fascinating characters. He's had many encounters with the unexplained in the
past and is currently on a quest for something in which to have faith.
He's the book's Indiana Jones—he doesn't necessarily believe in anything
supernatural, but he knows first-hand that there are things that science can't
account for yet. Still, he isn't the protagonist, and even
though he has plenty of experience with unnatural entities, the answers
he comes up with pertaining to the problems the Ark expedition faces are as likely to be wrong as anyone
else's. Golden suffuses him with sufficient backstory to bring him to life in
ways that give him additional depth.
Conflict arises from professional rivalries and bruised egos involving people
whose responsibilities overlap. Relationships break down, misunderstandings and
missteps abound, and the mission begins to spin out of control. The frigid,
stormy weather traps them in the cavern, adding to the claustrophobia and
paranoia that is spreading among the team. At times, the sense of dread and
malice is almost physical. Audible. Tangible. Then people being to act
irrationally, as if they're possessed. Some disappear or die. The crisis becomes
a struggle between surviving, destroying the evil that has been unleashed and
preventing it from escaping into the larger world.
Ararat will, no doubt, draw comparisons to The Abominable by
Dan Simmons, both of which involve mountain climbing during bleak, frozen
conditions. Although Ararat begins with a mountainside scene during a
tremor and subsequent avalanche, and another section that
entails a spirited race up the dangerous mountain, the book isn't as concerned
with the mechanics of high-altitude climbs as Simmons' novel was. The novel
has more in common with the movie The Thing.
Once the story admits the supernatural element, it becomes a question of
whether regular humans have the power to overcome it. Those who were on the ark
originally seemed to have come up with a way to contain it—but are the
members of this team capable of solving the riddle as their numbers dwindle.
Golden pulls no punches and any member of his large cast is vulnerable to the
demon and to the reactions and overreactions of ordinary people confronting
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