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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 against America. 

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 something extraordinary.

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