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Niall Alexander

Reunion Tour: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

There’s nothing that lifts my soul quite like a night of rock and roll. But rock and roll, as I’m sure we can agree, just ain’t what it used to be.

Back in the day, bands weren’t manufactured—they just happened, like a strike of lightning. And while a litter of mewling kittens can be made to sound terrific with the tools producers have to play with today, in the past, each and every member of a musical group had to be a master of their particular instrument. They didn’t have to be attractive, either. They didn’t have to dance or mug or mime. And they didn’t need goddamn gimmicks. All they needed to do was rock your socks off.

In the world of Kings of the Wyld, the funniest and the finest fantasy debut in ages, bands like Saga—the legendary mercenaries at the heart of Nicholas Eames’ finely formed first novel—don’t make music… they make war. Their instruments are their weapons; their axes and swords and shields. Their arena? Why, the whole wide world! Where they’re needed most, though, is the Heartwyld: a vast and vicious forest between Grandual, where humanity has its home, and Endland, where the monsters of the Dominion lay in wait.

[But just what are they waiting for?]

Not a Prequel, Or a Sequel, But an Equel: Philip Pullman Announces The Book of Dust

Twenty-two years on from Northern Lights—aka The Golden Compass—the first volume of a trilogy that’s since sold more than twenty-two million copies, Phillip Pullman has announced that the much-discussed Book of Dust is, if not done, then damn near complete. But contrary to earlier speculation, it’s not a prequel. Or even a sequel. According to the author, it is, in fact, “an ‘equel.’ It doesn’t stand before or after His Dark Materials, but beside it.”

Wait, you what? Well, Pullman, apparently, had always wanted to tell the story of how Lyra Belacqua, the hero at the heart of His Dark Materials, came to be living at Jordan College, where the first book of said series starts, and in thinking about it, he “discovered a long story that began when she was a baby and will end when she’s grown up.” A long story that, in short, begins before Northern Lights, and ends after the events of The Amber Spyglass.

Thus, The Book of Dust is not, as proposed so long ago, a companion piece to the original trilogy at all, but a whole new trilogy—the first volume of which will be released later this year.

[It’s real, readers!]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Isla de los Sueños: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

The circus been the subject of some remarking writing in recent years, from the marvellously moving Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti to The Night Circus‘ unbridled delight, so I came to Caraval—a book about which there has much such buzz—with hope of happiness in my heart. Sadly, Stephanie Garber’s debut is more like a watered-down Water For Elephants than either of the efforts aforementioned.

“It took seven years to get the letter right.” Seven years of begging and pleading. Seven years of congratulations and salutations. Scarlett tried asking the master of Caraval for tickets to the greatest show the world has known on her own behalf—alas, he didn’t answer. She tried intimating that it would be her darling little sister’s wish to play the planet’s greatest game—but no dice were ever delivered. Perversely, then, it was only when Scarlett wrote to tell Legend that her imminent marriage meant she’d no longer be able to attend in any event that an invitation finally came in the mail.

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A Life in the Day: Revealing Release by Patrick Ness

What a fine time of it Patrick Ness fans have been having! There was the first series of his Doctor Who spin-off, Class, which has been called “a British Buffy” with a touch of Torchwood. Then there was the film adaptation of his Carnegie Award winning novel A Monster Calls: an amazing movie that inexplicably bombed at the box office, shaming cinema-goers such as myself in process.

As delightful as these diversions have been, however, Ness is about to get back to what he’s best at: books. His new novel, Release, is slated for publication in the UK in early May, and it takes place over the course of a single day:

It’s Saturday, it’s summer and, although he doesn’t know it yet, everything in Adam Thorn’s life is going to fall apart. But maybe, just maybe, he’ll find freedom from the release. Time is running out though, because way across town, a ghost has risen from the lake…

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Love Actually: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

“Whatever you do, don’t give away that ending,” demands the marketing materials attached to review copies of Sarah Pinborough’s new book. And I won’t—I wouldn’t have even in lieu of the publisher’s playful plea—but it won’t be easy, because the best thing about Behind Her Eyes is that surprise.

A work of fiction twined around a twist that is, shall we say, entangled with something supernatural, Behind Her Eyes is likely to elicit a few screams of “Don’t cross the streams!” And understandably so, I suppose. Early on, it gives every impression of being a harmless bit of grip-lit, and if you haven’t read any Pinborough in the past, you’d be right to be wrong-footed by the surprisingly speculative turn her latest tale takes. That said, this—this willingness to futz with the formula of both genres—was precisely what made it such a satisfying read for me.

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Graphic Geometry: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story’s not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens’ initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they’re completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they’ve adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

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A Metropolis for the Recently Deceased: Revealing Summerland by Hannu Rajaniemi

To say The Quantum Thief made waves would be to gravely underplay the arrival of one of the most promising new authors speculative fiction has seen this century. Born in Finland but based in bonnie Scotland, Hannu Rajaniemi has been hailed as a herald of all that the genre has to offer. His books have been brilliantly original and quite marvellously imaginative, albeit so cerebral that they’ve been a struggle for some. Me, even. But like a lot of things, reading, I’ve realised, doesn’t need to be easy. In fact, some of the best experiences I’ve ever had, in literature and in life, have been the hardest.

In any event, as I concluded in my review of The Causal Angel, which fulfilling (if fearsome) finale closed out The Quantum Thief series, “Rajaniemi is without question one of the smartest and most exciting writers working in science fiction as we speak, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.” Well, it took nearly three years, but now we know what he has up his sleeves: a standalone called Summerland, in which the self-professed “purveyor of tomorrows” sets his startling sights on yesterday instead.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

A Way Out: Defender by G. X. Todd

Long seen though they’ve been as the preserve of the precocious, or the last hope of the lonely, imaginary friends are ten-a-penny in Defender.

G. X. Todd’s remarkably readable dystopian debut posits a planet Earth ravaged by unfathomable cataclysm. On the one hand, survivors are scant; on the other, theories about how it happened aren’t. “To get it over and done with, he quickly ticked off the points on his fingers as he listed them. ‘Biological attack, poisoning, after-effects of dementia vaccines, aliens, subliminal and/or psychological warfare, chemical agents in the water supply, the mystical forces of sea tides and the moon. And, my personal favourite, some kind of Rapture-type event.'”

But the cause of this apocalypse isn’t the point of Todd’s text—the first of four in a series starting here. Instead, she’s interested in the effect: namely the voices people started hearing in their heads. Defender‘s protagonist Pilgrim has one; he calls it, of all things, Voice. That said, he’s a rarity these days, because most of the folks who ended up with imaginary friends are dead.

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Before the Last Breath: Revealing The End of the Day by Claire North

Get your sighs of relief ready, readers, because we’re so close to clear of this evil year. In a little over a week, 2017 will be here, and with it, a whole new slate of lovely-looking books. Foremost among them, I dare say, is The End the Day. Claire North’s next is, according to Orbit, “a totally original novel with a mind-bending concept” at its core.

Between Touch, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and The Sudden Appearance of Hope in the summer of 2016, North—Catherine Webb’s second pseudonym after Kate Griffin—is three for three, in that every book to have borne her name to date has been great. The End of the Day marks a bit of a different direction for her, however.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

In Absentia: Revealing The Rift by Nina Allan

The Race really was rather remarkable. A story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality, it was shortlisted following its first publication for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the BSFA Award and the Kitchies Red Tentacle. In this year’s Reviewers’ Choice, I myself said it was “a text so very revelatory that I’ll read anything its author has a hand in from here on out.”

That means The Rift, readers: book two of the two-book deal Nina Allan signed with Titan back in August 2015. “A science fiction mystery about a woman named Julie who believes she’s been abducted by aliens,” The Rift is, as press officer Lydia Gittins puts it, “very much a continuation of the progressive and subversive style that won The Race so many critical accolades and award nominations.”

Your first look at its final cover art follows, alongside an exclusive excerpt and a bit about how the novel we’ll all be reading upon its release next year came to be.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Agents of Chaos: Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey

The Expanse made a tremendous first impression, and the next novels in the blockbuster space opera Leviathan Wakes started went from strength to strength, knocking the overarching first contact narrative out of the park at the same time as remaining satisfyingly self-contained. But then there was a wobble—a wobble of opportunity squandered that nearly drove this reader from the series. It fell, finally, to Nemesis Games to right not a sinking ship, but one that was at least listing.

I was delighted that it did. By contracting as opposed to expanding—by firmly and finely focusing on the characters that had been at its heart from the start—Nemesis Games recaptured the intimate magic that The Expanse’s latter chapters lacked, and although it didn’t address the presence of the protomolecule, something dramatic did actually happen in book five: something that completely changed the state of play across the Milky Way.

[Spoilers for the series so far follow.]

There’s a Place: Five Stories High, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

The latest in a lengthening line of excellent collections edited by Jonathan Oliver, Five Stories High finds several of speculative fiction’s best and brightest riffing on the same literary instrument: the haunted house. Not just any old haunted house, either, but one—Irongrove Lodge—shared by every player:

The house, like its surroundings, seemed quietly respectable, the largest and most prominent among a number of Georgian properties in the vicinity, flanked on one side by a ruddy-faced Victorian terrace, on the other by a 1930s mansion block built from the familiar yellow-grey London stock. […] I could not rid myself of the idea that the house had, in some peculiar way, itself created the ramshackle and disparate landscape that now surrounded it, drawn the cloak of modern London securely about itself, to conceal its true purpose.

The particulars of its true purpose differ dramatically depending on which of the five authors involved in Five Stories High you ask, but although Nina Allan, K. J. Parker, Tade Thompson, Robert Shearman, and Sarah Lotz diverge on the details, all agree that Irongrove Lodge is a home most hellish.

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The Man Who Wasn’t There: Normal by Warren Ellis

For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we’ve raised and for all the progress we’ve made—for all that, it’s not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who’s resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn’t mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn’t have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.

[He gazed into the abyss for a living…]

Poetry in Motion: An Interview with Anna Smaill

A couple of weeks ago, if you’d said you hadn’t read any Anna Smaill, I’d have been sad, but not entirely surprised. Long story short, she’s the author of a book of poetry, namely The Violinist in Spring, and a novel, first released in February 2015, called The Chimes.

Now I loved that novel—“to call The Chimes striking is I dare say to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade” is how I put it in my rave of a review—but I’ve loved any number of novels during my time here at, and I don’t actually expect you to act on my every recommendation. To wit: if, a fortnight or so ago, you hadn’t quite gotten around to The Chimes, that would have been fine. Not so much now that it’s went and won the World Fantasy Award, beating out some truly brilliant books by Kazuo Ishiguro, N. K. Jemisin, Naomi Novik, K. J. Parker, and Paul Tremblay; now you really do need to read it.

In the wake of her win, I spoke with Anna Smaill about memory, legacy, genre, music and community. Our conversation follows.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The End of the Line: Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Both in Britain and abroad, so much has changed in the years since the release of Dave Hutchinson’s Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Europe in Autumn that the mind positively boggles. In 2014 I described its depiction of a Europe decimated by division “as plausible as it is novel,” but I’ll be damned if it isn’t beginning to look visionary.

What shape the differences democracy has recently wrought will take is, as yet, anyone’s guess. Everything’s up for grabs, not least the ideals we hold nearest and dearest—just as they are in the world of the Fractured Europe sequence: a manic mosaic of “nations and polities and duchies and sanjaks and earldoms and principalities and communes.”

The situation was, if anything, even worse the further East you went. Beyond Rus—European Russia—and Sibir was a patchwork of republics and statelets and nations and kingdoms and khanates and ‘stans which had been crushed out of existence by History, reconstituted, fragmented, reinvented, fragmented again, absorbed, reabsorbed and recreated.”

But that’s not all—hell, that’s not even the half of it—as readers of Europe at Midnight will recall.

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