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Niall Alexander

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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Renewal and Rebirth: An Interview with Mark Charan Newton

Seven or so years ago, Mark Charan Newton was a name you needed to know. Now the author has another nom-de-plume: James Abbott. Abbott’s debut, The Never King, is slated for publication next May with Tor Books UK, and it demarcates a different direction for the man who reminded The Times of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe:

Xavir Argentum is the legendary former commander of an elite warrior cadre. But Xavir was framed for an atrocity during an epic battle and imprisoned for life, taking him out of the running for the crown itself. Then, while powerless to influence events, the kingdom he’d sworn to protect fell into the hands of a tyrant. It will be up to a few—a mixed bag of rogues and heroes—to right some great wrongs. But first, Xavir must make his escape…

I wanted to know what it was that led Newton to take on a pseudonym, whether we’ve heard the last of Lucan Drakenfeld, the hapless hero of his two most recent releases, and a whole host of other things—so I asked.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

An Uncanny Silence: Thin Air by Michelle Paver

It was on the back of the award-winning, six-part Chronicles of Ancient Darkness that Michelle Paver put out Dark Matter. A ghost story inspired by her lifelong love of the Arctic, it attracted flattering comparisons to the work of such giants of the genre as M. R. James and Susan Hill, and became, before long, a bona fide bestseller.

That the author has now turned her hand to another tale in the same vise-like vein can hardly be seen as surprising; what can is the fact that it’s taken her six years and another complete children’s series, namely the Gods and Warriors novels. But given the strength of Thin Air, a short, stirring and altogether masterful narrative set on the sheer slopes of the world’s third-highest hill, if it takes another decade for Paver to perfect its successor, that’s a decade I’ll be willing to wait.

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All Things Bright and Beautiful: The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

In the beginning, a bang: a promising and potentially explosive prologue, or a scene that’s suggestive of all the fun to come. That’s a fine way for a story—especially a scary story—to start. But you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to give yourself nowhere to go by starting the show with the showstopper, and I dare say that’s exactly what Alison Littlewood did with her debut.

Chilling and thrilling in equal measure, and at once creepy and weepy, A Cold Season was a hell of a hard act to follow, and although both Path of Needles and The Unquiet House were reasonably well received, nothing Littlewood has written since said has surpassed its macabre mastery. Certainly not last year’s tedious sequel. Happily, her newest novel rights almost every one of A Cold Silence‘s throng of wrongs. I’d go farther than that, in fact; I’d assert that The Hidden People is the aforementioned author’s most accomplished effort yet—if not necessarily her most accessible.

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If Loved, Then Love: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Life is a lot of things. It’s intense and it’s tedious; it’s exhausting as often as it’s exhilarating. Sometimes it’s kind of delightful; sometimes it’s quite, quite terrifying. “None of us have a rule book,” as Pepper puts it. “None of us know what we’re doing here.” But we each have our own ideas, don’t we? We all have our aspirations, our particular purposes. Some of us want to start families. Some of us want to make successes of ourselves. Some of us want to see the world. Some of us want to pave the way for change.

Insofar as she ever wanted anything, Lovelace—the AI formerly installed on the spaceship which went The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Becky Chambers’ radiant debut—Lovelace wanted to make the humans in her hull happy.

[That’s why she opted to be installed in a body kit…]

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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