Review: Red Equinox

By Martha Hubbard

Wynne, Douglas. Red Equinox. JournalStone, 2015. 377 pages. ISBN: 978-1-940161.

Set in and around a semi-post-apocalyptic Boston, Red Equinox envelops the reader in a set of circumstances and events that in today’s crazies-filled world are only-too-possible. We first meet our reluctant heroine Becca Philips on her way to her grandmother Catherine’s funeral. “(she) … hadn’t been to Arkham in years, hadn’t worn a dress in almost as long and now here she was stepping off the train and feeling out of place in both.”

In this world of broken homes, absent or dead parents, endless-seeming gray winters spawning more and more severe cases of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), Becca could be the poster child for the future of many young people. She abandoned the brilliant, demanding grandmother who raised her after the suicide of her mother for the meanish streets of Boston, to study photography and try to forget the peculiar childhood that still disturbed her dreams. After the funeral, she is presented with a small cedar box, containing the golden scarab beetle pendant that is Catherine’s legacy to her.

Once back in Boston, she has time to fully examine the beetle and begins to speculate on the nature of the stone clearly missing from the pendant. This missing stone is to play a crucial role in the resolution of the events that follow.

Guilt over her grandmother’s death and questions generated by the scarab prompt her to take a day off from her job in a local photo gallery. She telephones her best – only? – friend Rafael, a talented young artist from the favelas of São Paolo, whose photographs of his graffiti earned him a scholarship to the Boston School of Art. After arranging to meet, they set off for Arkham to photograph the old abandoned asylum. Once there, they disturb “a man in a black trench coat with a beaded cap on his head (who was) kneeling in prayer or meditation.” His chanting has “a strange, alien beauty … she detected a profound longing in the lilting melody.”

Up to this point, with the exception of references to Arkham, this could be just a very-well-written YA adventure. Now the story takes a distinct turning into Lovecraft territory. We begin to be introduced to disturbed and disturbing characters who are being led to facilitate the return of the Elder Gods through distorting the mental processes of those who hear the haunting sounds of the ancient voices. After Jason Brooks, divorced gambler and field agent for SPECTRE – no, not the Bond movie villains, but the Special Physics Emergent Counter Terror Recon Agency, an entity similar to Charlie Stross’ Laundry but not as funny, witnesses an horrific attack on the outbound Red Line that seemed to emanate from a modified boom box, he quickly realizes that something evil is descending on Boston.

All the usual suspects now arrive, starting with Darius Marlow, a nebbishy, nerdy MIT student who is the perfect dupe for Nyarlathotep to use in his quest to regain a physical body and retake the earth that the Old Gods regard as their birthright.

The way in which the somewhat reluctant forces for good and humankind counter the forces of evil and darkness makes up the remainder of a novel that is by turns rollicking, chilling, charming, and frightening. And Becca and Raphael acquire a dog, Django, who plays an important role in the resolution.

While I genuinely enjoyed reading this and do recommend it, there is one issue that it throws up which I have been seeing in more genre fiction than I would like. It is wonderful that we have in Becca a funny, snarky, imperfect, thoughtful, kick-ass (literally) heroine, but, with the exception of the now-dead grandmother, she is the only female character of agency in the book. Is it really impossible for strong women with power to exist in a world surrounded by friends of all genders?

Without going off on too long a tangent, I raised this same question after watching Frozen. Here, the older sister’s power is so dangerous and uncontrollable she must be sequestered and controlled for her entire childhood. The dippy sister gets to have adventures and fall in love, but the woman of power is too threatening to be allowed out unsupervised. Women! I ask you. Is this a message you want to give your daughters?

True, Red Equinox isn’t nearly this extreme and some of Becca’s isolation issues find resolution near the end. But this is a question I have been pondering for some time. What kind of social milieu can strong heroines in genre fiction expect? Must they be isolated or surrounded by only or mainly men? Are they allowed to have positive friendships with other strong women?

The answers to these questions are going to tell us a lot about how the world views and will view women who possess or aspire to real power.

So, a post-apocalyptic, Lovecraftian, semi-YA adventure. Great, if frequently chilling, fun. 4****.