Review – Wrath of N’Kai (Arkham Horror Fiction)

The world of Arkham Horror Files (usually just referred to as Arkham Horror these days) has been around since the publication of the first edition of the eponymous board game from Fantasy Flight Games. Best known from a series of follow-up board and card games (including my favorite board game of the last decade, the second edition of Mansions of Madness), Arkham Horror presents a Lovecraft-infused version of the roaring 20s, focused on the town of Arkham, then expanding out to all of New England and sometimes across the globe. It features eldritch adventure, investigators (alone or in teams), scholarly researchers, occult societies, organized crime, and – being in the Cthulhu Mythos genre – mysterious entities who threaten sanity in addition to life and limb.

In addition to the games, which are themselves steeped in a lot of flavor, Arkham Horror has been accompanied by stand-alone works of fiction for the last decade. That’s included a series of full-length novels and has more recently featured novellas tied in with Arkham Horror: The Card Game. With the release of Wrath of N’kai, Arkham Horror is moving back to longer-form fiction. The novel, written by Josh Reynolds (author of many books set in the Warhammer/40K universe) and published by Aconyte Books (the new book-publishing arm of Asmodee Entertainment), is scheduled to arrive on May 5, 2020.

Wrath of N’kai stars Countess Alessandra Zorzi, an international thief of occult curiosities, who has traveled to not-so-sleepy Arkham for a job involving the exhibition of a strange mummy recently unearthed in Oklahoma. Once there, she picks up a sidekick (cabbie Pepper Kelly), but gets beaten to the punch when gangsters snatch the mummy during a daylight gunfight. This leaves Zorzi stuck between an angry (and rather scary) employer, a police/insurance investigation, the unknown employer of the gangsters, a gruesome serial killer, and various factions in the city. To top it off, as Zorzi learns during the robbery, the mummy is not just a dead body, but a harbinger of terrors to come.

Zorzi’s position as an outsider means that readers don’t have to worry about whether they’re coming in with an extensive knowledge of the Arkham Horror universe – because the primary protagonist doesn’t know anything about it, the reader doesn’t need to go in knowing anything either. Kelly provides some exposition and local color as needed, but the Reynolds generally avoids compressed information overloads. While this slow rollout is solid for explaining the world, it doesn’t hold up quite as well for Zorzi herself, whose seemingly-shifting motivations leave the character feeling a bit muddled. I enjoyed the character (who reminds me of no one so much as Lady Christina de Souza from the Dr. Who episode Planet of the Dead), but I didn’t leave the novel with a hankering to see her appear in the next game expansion.

Zorzi borders on omnicompetent – she’s a highly-skilled thief, knows how to brawl and fire a machine gun, is multilingual, and possesses a potpourri of high-level classical education. However, she avoids coming across as annoyingly competent because most of this is used for flavor and witty commentary. The investigation itself is reminiscent of film noir, not Sherlock Holmes. Like a hardboiled detective moving through misty black-and-white streets, Zorzi successively pushes at the various suspects and involved parties, advancing the plot by seeing what information they cough up directly or through their reactions. She ultimately figures out who’s behind things (well, the human part of them, anyway) not by analyzing hard evidence (although there is some of that), but primarily by an examination of human motivation and opportunity. The supernatural elements of the plot are less prominent than usual for Arkham Horror (although still within the error bars); knowing what occult phenomenon is taking place is less significant than knowing what the humans are getting up to.

Past fiction set in the Arkham Horror universe have varied in their use of established characters, from extensive featuring of a wide selection of investigators known from the games to basically no mention of anyone you’d ever have heard before picking up the novel. As those who read my prior look at the Arkham Horror novels will know, I personally prefer the latter. There are around 50 investigators from the various games and expansions, and the canon of Arkham Horror fiction is not so large that I yearn for fiction set in the world that doesn’t include any of them. Wrath of N’kai is somewhere in between. Of the four semi-protagonists in the book, only Tommy Muldoon is an established character. However, other figures are drawn from the established world, including Carl Sanford (of the Silver Twilight Lodge) and Harvey Walters/Daisy Walker (of Miskatonic University). Some locations I was familiar with (the Orne Library), but others I was not (for example, there are two hotels mentioned in the book, but neither is the previously-featured Excelsior).

Overall, Wrath of N’kai is a nice introduction to Arkham Horror, although it’s more Chandler and less Lovecraft than is usual for the universe. In this, plus the selection of a newcomer protagonist, Wrath of N’kai leans in on favoring the newcomer over the 15-year veteran. Wrath of N’kai isn’t going to depose my favorite Arkham Horror fiction (the stand-alone Feeders from Within by Peter Evans and the Dark Waters trilogy by Graham McNeill), but it’s a solid entry in the canon. This makes Wrath of N’kai both a good introduction to the setting and a worthwhile read for the long-time fan.

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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