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Niall Alexander

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: Dark Made Dawn by J. P. Smythe

The Girl Who Fell to Earth finds her feet in Dark Made Dawn, the vital concluding volume of the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Australia Trilogy by J. P. Smythe.

It’s been a long road for Chan, who murdered her mother mere moments after we met her, crash-landed the prison ship she’d lived on her whole life a little later, and has had to do a whole host of other awful things simply to survive since—but her hellish journey is almost at an end. She’s been reunited with her former frenemy, Rex; they’ve found employment, of a sort, amongst the automatons of walled-off Washington; and the nearby nomads have offered them a home away from home. In short, Chan’s dreamed-of destination—a world in which she can be with Mae, come what may—is finally in sight, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look bright!

[Then again, it’s always darkest before the dawn…]

Infinite Grimoire: A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

He gave grimdark fantasy a knee in the rear with the wickedly witty Low Town trilogy. He tackled epic fantasy to tremendous effect across Those Above and Those Below. Now, as he turns his attention to urban fantasy by way of his brilliantly bold new book, one wonders: can Daniel Polansky no wrong?

That remains to be seen, I suppose, but he’s certainly never done anything as resoundingly right as A City Dreaming. An assemblage of loosely-connected vignettes as opposed to a work of longform fiction—although it’s also that, at the last—A City Dreaming takes some getting into, but once you’re in, it’s a win-win. Hand on heart, I haven’t read anything like it in my life.

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Human After All: The Warren by Brian Evenson

Area X meets Duncan Jones’ first and finest movie Moon in a marvellously mystifying novella that wants to know what it means to be human in a world where people can be constructed like sculptures shaped from clay.

X is one such person; the last in a line of such people, even, although almost all of his predecessors, helpfully arranged alphabetically, persist within him. “X was the most recent, the closest to the surface; there was nobody beyond him. And yet he was folded in on himself, damaged.” Being more metaphysical than physiological, that damage is on display from word one of The Warren, which purports to be a record—though it is far from reliable—of X’s pitiable existence:

I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this.

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Message in a Bottle: Death’s End by Cixin Liu

The translation and publication of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body books has been a singular highlight of the science fiction scene in recent years. The Hugo Award-winning opening salvo of said saga took in physics, farming, philosophy and first contact, and that was just for starters. The world was wondrous, the science startling, and although the author’s choice of “a man named ‘humanity'” as that narrative’s central character led to a slight lack of life, The Three-Body Problem promised profundity.

A year later, The Dark Forest delivered. Bolstered by “a complex protagonist, an engrossing, high-stakes story and a truly transcendent setting, The Dark Forest [was] by every measure a better book” than The Three-Body Problem. Not only did it account for its predecessor’s every oversight, it also embiggened the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy brilliantly and explored a series of ideas that astonished even seasoned science fiction readers.

But “no banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything.” And when something you care about does approach that point, all you can do is hope it ends well.

[Death’s End does.]

Journeyman: The Gradual by Christopher Priest

Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It’s not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it’s just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn’t likely to inspire another, and if it does, it’ll be differently.

That’s just one of the lessons the eventually-fêted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man’s lifelong journey through the tides of time.

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Into the Empty: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Fresh off of finishing the magnificently ambitious Poseidon’s Children trilogy and collaborating with fellow science fiction superstar Stephen Baxter on the rather marvellous Medusa Chronicles, Alastair Reynolds returns with a stirring story about a pair of sisters who enlist on a spaceship and set about looting the rubble of a ruined universe. Featuring dollops of derring-do and not a few space battles too, Revenger might be Reynold’s most accessible solo effort yet, but there’s no dearth of darkness in this light-looking bite of a book.

The universe has seen better days, I dare say. Aeons on from the forging, so many civilisations have risen and fallen that the current population of the Congregation live every day as if it’s apt to be their last. Piracy is inevitably prevalent, but rather than stealing from one another, most pirates plunder the remnants of ancient races from the hundreds of thousands of dead worlds distributed in the distance.

[Most pirates, but not all…]

Return to the First of All Worlds: New Editions of The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

With the publication of Children of Earth and Sky earlier this year—reviewed right here—Hodder & Stoughton did, I think, a damn fine job of welcoming Guy Gavriel Kay to the tremendous list of talent it’s been building behind the scenes. Now, not six months since, it’s doubling down on the World Fantasy Award-winning author’s place in the speculative space with the release of new digital editions of his very earliest efforts—complete with lovely new covers that nevertheless “retain elements of the old” by the same artist who did the originals: a Mr. Martin Springett.

Together, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road chronicle the lives of five men and women who find themselves flung into the magical land of Fionavar, First of All Worlds.

[And that’s just the start…]

Series: British Fiction Focus

A Family Affair: Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton

Although it was a small novel, both in size and in scope, Spellwright made a sizeable splash in the speculative fiction scene when it was released six years or so ago. First-time author Blake Charlton brought his own experiences as “a proud dyslexic” to bear brilliantly by exploring the place of a young man who misspells everything in a world in which magic is literally written.

Spellbound was bigger than Spellwright in the same several senses. It expanded the overarching narrative from the magical academy where Nicodemus Weal came of age and learned of something called the Disjunction to take in a distant city and a second central character. Again like the author, a medical school student by day and a writer by night at the time, Francesca DeVega was a physician poised to use her powers to heal the needy, but when she too became aware of the coming catastrophe, she had to put her pursuits on the back-burner to help Nico defeat the demons—demons that meant to destroy the lifeblood of the living: language.

But the demons were not defeated by our heroes… only delayed. And now, in Spellbreaker—not the longest volume of Charlton’s inventive trilogy but unequivocally the most ambitious—the Disjunction is at last at hand.

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Too Human: The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell

In everything we do, every decision we make and every action we undertake, our identities define us… yet we never really know who we are. We know who we were—we tell ourselves we do, to be sure—but like all memories, these recollections lose their sharpness with time, and, invariably, some of their truth, too. And while we think we know who we will be, these are projections at best; messy guesses subject to sudden and surprising changes in circumstance.

Take Luke Arnold, the central perspective of The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. He thought he was the only son of Maurice and Freda Arnold, but as a DNA test taken on television demonstrates, he’s not; the hospital must have given the couple he calls mum and dad the wrong baby. “He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts.” Nevertheless, this sensational revelation alters Luke’s perception of his past, and that, in turn, has huge ramifications on his future.

Who, then, is the man caught in the middle?

[Not who—or what—you might imagine, actually…]

New Moon: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

Middle volume syndrome sets in in the surprisingly circumspect sequel to one of the best and bravest books of 2015. Though the world remains remarkable, and the characters at the heart of the narrative are as rich and resonant as ever, The Obelisk Gate sacrifices The Fifth Season‘s substance and sense of momentum for a far slighter and slower story.

In the Stillness, a perpetually apocalyptic landscape which may or may not be our planet many generations hence, purpose is a pre-requisite. A use-caste, it’s called. There are strongbacks and breeders and cutters and hunters, to name just a few, all of whom are defined by what they do; by what they can contribute to the communities, or comms, that they call home.

This is a hard world, however, replete with hard people. Season after Season—of widespread death by choking, boiling and breathlessness among other, equally unpleasant ends—has seen to that, so no comm will carry you if you’re not prepared to pull your weight in some way. In the Stillness, there’s just no place for waste.

[No place for orogenes like our heroes, either.]

Me, Myself and I: The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

If Hunter S. Thompson had written a Blair Witch tie-in, it might have looked a little something like this. A gonzo ghost story that trades in unreliable narration and drug-fuelled devastation, The Last Days of Jack Sparks marks the original fiction debut of music journalist and now novelist Jason Arnopp, and has as its central character a man who made his name writing for the NME before properly letting loose in a few bestselling books.

That’s where the similarities between the author and the authored end, however. I have reason to believe that Jason Arnopp is a genuinely decent human being, whereas Jack Sparks is an egotistical twit who, for his first trick, travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain on a pogo stick, offending everyone he encountered equally. Since then, he’s gobbled up gang culture and gotten close to a couple of Class A chemical concoctions, with similarly repugnant results.

Now, for his new novel, he’s set his sights on a Halloween theme. Could ghosts really be real? Our intrepid reporter wants to know. So much so that Jack Sparks on the Supernatural will be his last book, because he died, quite violently, while writing it.

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Conventional Wisdom: I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Ahead of Ian McEwan’s literary nasty Nutshell, a fable of infidelity readers will only be able to experience from the perspective of a foetus, I Am Providence proffers a murder mystery narrated in no small part by the victim of that very vicious killing in the moments before his failing brain cracks and crumbles like “a sponge drying in the sun.”

Panos Panossian is an utterly insufferable author of Lovecraftian lore, so it’s either fitting or simply suspicious that he meets his maker on the first day of the annual Summer Tentacular. “Providence’s premiere literary conference about pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft” features, funnily enough, “a veritable ‘Who’s That?’ of horror fiction,” including one Colleen Danzig. A newcomer to mythos mania with just a few short stories to her name, she was set to share a room with Panossian, but when the con goes on despite his death, Colleen decides to determine just whodunnit. After all, “if anything is possible, then yes, an untrained writer could find a murderer.”

Not just a murderer, but a mutilator too, because to add insult to injury, the killer, whoever he or she may be, purloined poor Panossian’s face in addition to his future.

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Romancing the Throne: Revealing Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne is over, for the moment, but the world Brian Staveley created in the course of said series is the kind of gift that keeps on giving. You don’t have to take my word for it, folks—just see Skullsworn: a standalone prequel starring Pyrre, the priestess who played such a pivotal role in The Providence of Fire, as she returns to the city of her birth to earn her stripes as an assassin under the auspices of Ananshael.

Staveley himself revealed the unutterably lovely North American cover here on a couple of months ago, but for its publication in the UK, designer Matthew Garrett was tasked with creating a look that would link back to the British editions of the aforementioned trilogy—all of which featured swords and borders—at the same time as suggesting Skullsworn was something new, something that could potentially be read by any and all interested parties as opposed to only those who’ve completed The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.

[What Garrett came up with ticks both of those boxes, I believe.]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Who Rides the Riders? The Race by Nina Allan

If I were to start this article by stating that The Race is the best debut of the year to date, I’d be telling the truth, to be sure, but I’d be lying to you, too—and that’s as apt a tack as any I could take to introduce a review of a book as deceptive and self-reflexive as said.

You see, it might be that I was more moved by Nina Allan’s first novel than by any other released in recent months—emotionally and, yes, intellectually—but The Race was not released in recent months, not really: NewCon Press published an earlier edition in 2014, which, even absent the substantial and supremely satisfying expansion Allan has added for Titan Books’ new and improved take two, went on to be nominated for the BSFA’s Best Novel Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Prize and the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle. And although The Race is indeed Allan’s first novel proper, it is, in a sense, a cycle of stories that share subjects and settings, not unlike several of the aforementioned author’s earlier efforts, such as Stardust and The Silver Wind.

So it’s not really a debut and it wasn’t really released this year, which leaves just one of my first line’s “facts” unfudged. Happily, The Race actually is amazing, and if you haven’t read it already, don’t let this second chance pass you by.

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Rearranging Angels: Revealing The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

In the conclusion of my rave of a review, I spoke of The House of Shattered Wings as emblematic of an intelligence and an elegance as rare and precious as angel essence. It was, in a word, a wonder, and one I wanted more of.

My wish was Aliette de Bodard’s command, apparently, as Gollancz has unveiled book two of Dominion of the Fallen: it’s called The House of Binding Thorns, and it “continues the epic story of the fallout of the war in heaven that saw the angelic Great Houses of Paris assaulted and torn apart by mistrust and betrayal” in the winner of last year’s British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel. “Among the ruins of Paris, the Great Houses, shaken to their foundations, now struggle to put themselves back together, as powerful forces, gods and angels, men and demons, begin to circle”—attracted, perhaps, to the power vacuum left in the aftermath of that masterful narrative.

Gollancz didn’t have much more to say about The House of Binding Thorns today, I’m afraid, but I did a bit of digging on de Bodard’s blog this morning, and found the following…

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Series: British Fiction Focus