Seven strangers awaken in what appears to be a school, unsure of how they got there. Their last memories are of near death experiences – James Bixby is hit by a train during a rescue attempt, Olivia Young has been shot while working in the ER. Selected by a shadowy organisation called Magnus, the group are trapped in a deadly ceremony designed to keep old gods asleep.
Modern Rituals sells itself as something like Cabin in the Woods, the 2011 Joss Whedon hit, and there are plenty of similarities. Readers with any kind of familiarity with cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft, modern fantasy and horror movies will instantly pick up the cues that the novel puts down. To begin with, the overt use of tropes is uncomfortable; you can’t help but wonder if the whole story will rely on short hand and references rather than developing an actual plot.
The exposition is often clunky, and it’s difficult to establish an emotional connection with characters who initially seem like cardboard cut outs. Luckily, the tropes fade into the background quite quickly. J.S. Leonard writes pseudo literary style, unafraid of short sentences, delicate dialogue and reflective moments, softening the abrasiveness of the genre jokes. Called “tech noir” by some, there is a conspiracy at the heart of Modern Rituals, and the interplay between corporations and individuals, the tension between structure and freedom, is what prevents the novel from being straight pastiche. The combination of old gods and current technology makes for engaging plot lines, a humorous twist on the bureaucracy of horror. The novel does skirt dangerously close to an overt and clichéd moral at one point – the potential for the humans to have been the real monsters is ever present – but it dips away and back into greyer, subtler areas of thought.
Modern Rituals makes no effort to hide its upcoming sequels – the full title of the book is Modern Rituals: The Wayward Three (Book 1). While the characters don’t seem to have much room to move developmentally, a common issue for trope based writing, there is definitely more to be found in the world of Modern Rituals. By the conclusion of the novel, the overall atmosphere has strayed away from cosmic horror and towards combined mythologies, including a hierarchical system of gods, demi-gods and magic.
It’s unclear which demographic this book is pitched to; the themes and graphic descriptions are certainly enough to make a publisher place it in the adult section, but there is potentially more enjoyment here for young adult readers. L.S. Leonard sits neatly in that grey area between someone like Suzanne Collins and Neil Gaiman, without being derivative of either.
Modern Rituals is available from the 16th of February from Boy Meets Universe.