In this debut fantasy, a young archaeologist struggles to decipher a temple’s puzzling hieroglyphics and his own paranormal talents.
The University of Chicago dispatches Alexander “Ramses” Smith—aka Lex—to study a temple in Egypt. Lex arrives via the Nile River in Esna, hoping to perform research valuable enough to secure his doctorate. The Temple of Khnum, however, has proved difficult for archaeologists to study because it’s filled with confusing, supposedly incoherent hieroglyphics. In the bare-bones apartment procured by the university, Lex wonders if professor Orridge has sent him on a fool’s errand. When Lex enters the temple, he acknowledges and explores a curious energy within. Lex’s teenage years were spent under the tutelage of a clairvoyant grandmother, who realized he had gifts worth nurturing, but he doesn’t want to rely on them here. Then, after touching the bas relief of a priest, he starts hearing disembodied voices, including one that says, “Time here looped, curving in upon itself.” Back at the apartment, he remembers the journal of Dr. Broderick Gillwood, which had been slated for destruction until he pilfered it from the university. In a shocking feat of synchronicity, Gillwood also studied the Temple of Khnum, which Lex soon discovers is inhabited by ancient demons called afrets. Merrick conjures a narrative reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft—not thanks to hideous creatures, but because Lex’s story travels inward, through his own paranoia and terror, as much as it moves forward. Esna and the temple itself, described in lavish detail, persist as characters more memorable than some of the people (like the grocer Malik) Lex meets; at one point, the temple “mesmerized with teeming dust particles that sparkled as flecks of tinfoil.” Merrick also displays immense knowledge of Egypt, comparing temples to spiritual batteries and telling readers that they “consisted of multiple structures built over a long period of time, which reflected the evolution of culture and beliefs.” Her greatest success, however, is in isolating the reader alongside her protagonist and toying with both psychologically.
A supernatural fantasy impressive for its subtlety and Egyptian research.