Book Review – The Last Ritual

The Last Ritual by SA Sidor is Aconyte’s second novel set in the world of Arkham Horror. Much like The Wrath of N’kai, the last Ritual follows an already-familiar pattern: a brand-new protagonist, inhabiting a familiar setting, and running into well-established Arkham characters, who will play a greater or lesser role in the proceedings.

It’s worth noting from the outset, what a beautifully-crafted piece of work The Last Ritual is, in all senses. As a man with far too little shelf-space left in his house, I tend to read mostly on Kindle these days, but am seriously tempted to add a physical copy of this one to my shelves, for the gorgeous Art-Deco cover. Fortunately the craftsmanship doesn’t stop with the cover either: As with Wrath of N’Kai, the cover sets the tone for the book as a whole. Where Wrath was visceral, a struggle against a terrifying monster, The Last Ritual is a far more subtle, cerebral affair. The writer consistently undercuts the voice of the narrator until neither you nor he can be entirely sure about the events he has described for you, and something as major as the very existence of a prominent character can be called into question.

The Last Ritual begins and ends with another story, a short framing device set in an Arkham hotel, one year after the conclusion of the events in the main narrative. This framing story depicts the meeting of a young journalist, and the man who is to be our narrator, one Alden Oakes. Oakes’ comments to the reporter make it clear from the outset that there will be some kind of horrific conflagration at the hotel, from which Alden himself will emerge – prematurely aged and weakened – but which will claim the lives of many others.

So who is Alden Oakes? the protagonist of The Last Ritual is a young artist, born into idle wealth amongst the upper echelons of Arkham society. When the novel begins, he is sauntering his way fairly pointlessly around the south of France and the north of Spain, on a hunt for the artistic inspiration that is so far eluding him. Sidor’s depiction of an anglophone outsider travelling Mediterranean Europe captures the feel brilliantly, and put me at least as much in mind of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as it did the horrors of Arkham.

Things start to change for Alden encounters his old friend Preston Fairmont one day in the South of France, and is summoned back to Arkham to act as best-man at his wedding (to Alden’s own former fiancée of all people): this invitation from Preston sets Alden on a journey which seems destined to provide him with the artistic inspiration that he has sought for so long, but which may well come at the cost of his own sanity –  and possibly the end of the world, but maybe that’s just his imagination?

I don’t want to spoil too much about the identity of the female lead in The Last Ritual, as the mystery which surrounds her is a key part of the unfolding narrative. Alden’s undulating course of doubt, realisation and confusion allows Sidor to portray a character who is strong and engaging, whilst keeping you slightly off-balance. I enjoyed the complexity of her character, and thought that the strength of her character was well-executed, the ultimate conclusion to her arc a satisfying, if deliberately ambiguous one. Virtually the last thing that Alden says about her will be an unanswered question.

Aside from Alden and his leading lady the other major character who drives much of the action of The Last Ritual, is Balthazarr. More fully, Juan Hugo Balthazzar, “the most shocking living painter in the world” and a self-declared genius. Balthazzar is a Spaniard whose work Alden has long admired from afar, and with whom he seems to repeatedly almost cross paths until he finally comes to Arkham, and becomes the defacto leader of an artists’ collective there. Whilst we see plenty of Balthazarr as the book continues, and he is clearly an imperious figure, clear on his own goals and methods, the unreliability of Alden’s own senses make it unclear whether he is the villain of the piece, or simply a charismatic figure whose image our narrator projects onto darker forces and those he cannot explain. Again, I was impressed by how skilfully Sidor walked this tightrope, portraying such a forceful character, at the same time as obfuscating his exact role in the grand design. The reader is kept constantly guessing for a long time, and only gradually is the truth allowed to become clear when the protagonists are in so deep that they see their doom rushing towards them with a crushing inevitability.

At the risk of a slight tangent, one element of The Last Ritual that I found a bit unusual (this may sound familiar to those who read my previous review of Wrath of N’Kai) was the way that existing Arkham Horror investigators are used. There is a fun little cameo at a party which felt nicely executed, but the two investigators who play bigger roles felt a little strange, especially Preston Fairmont. As people already familiar with him from FFG’s board and card games will know, Preston’s subtitle is “the Millionaire” and he has usually functioned in games by either

  1. Paying other people to do things for him,
  2. Being very influential (due to being loaded), or
  3. Using his many material possessions to steady his mind after witnessing the horrors of the Mythos.

So far, so good. The thing I found weird about his appearance here though, was his apparent ignorance of the Mythos. Where we’re used to seeing Investigators crop up to butt heads with the machinations of the mythos, Preston here seems entirely oblivious to Eldritch Forces around him, focused more on his upcoming nuptials, and his patronage of a famous artist who has recently moved to Arkham. It’s a relatively minor issue, but part of me feels like an original character here rather than Preston would have served better: it would have made him more mysterious as a character and probably made me think differently about their probable fate (based on prior novels and my own assumptions, I don’t envisage any of Fantasy Flight’s 58 Investigators actually dying in any of this tie-in fiction). That said, if you have less of an obsessive relationship with the backstory of the various Arkham Files investigators, it’s unlikely to bother you and, ultimately, it is a minor quibble.

The Last Ritual wouldn’t really be an Arkham novel if events didn’t reach a suitably dramatic climax, and the readers are promised a mighty conflagration early on, which is duly delivered. Despite all this though, the story remains so much more than simply plot-driven, with Sidor’s characters all complex and engaging enough to drive the reader’s interest through the novel.

Overall, I thought The Last Ritual was a great read. Alden is an interesting, if somewhat aimless protagonist, and he provides a fascinating window into Eldritch activities that grow from unsettling to truly horrifying. Sidor deserves particular credit for this, as stories set in the Mythos can easily fall into an all-too-black-and-white situation where the reader knows that the mythos creatures and activities are real whilst the characters remain in “rational” denial. The Last Ritual achieves a lot in making things greyer for reader and characters alike. The characters are interesting, and the conclusion even manages to offer a resolution that is at least bittersweet, rather than as utterly calamitous for Alden as it seems likely to be.

Review based on an advance electronic copy of SA Sidor’s The Last Ritual, provided by Aconyte Books for review purposes.

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