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Niall Alexander

Mother May I: Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Following his triumphant trek through Area X in the cerebral Southern Reach series, Jeff VanderMeer mounts a more modest yet no less affecting expedition into uncharted territory by way of Borne, a surprisingly beautiful book about a blob which behaves like a boy and the broken woman who takes him in.

Her name is Rachel, and when she was little, she “wanted to be a writer, or at least something other than a refugee. Not a trap-maker. Not a scavenger. Not a killer.” But we are what the world makes us, and no poxy author would have lasted long in the world in which this novel’s narrator was raised:

Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.

There is hope even in this haunted hellscape, however, and it takes a strange shape, as hope tends to: that of “a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours” Rachel finds in the festering fur of a skyscraper-sized flying bear called Mord.

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Unplanned Parenthood: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

When she was a girl, Rose Franklin fell on a giant hand made of a metal mined, in the main, from meteorites. Determined to glean what it might mean, the government covered her discovery up and ordered its best and brightest minds to study this unlikely find. Where had the hand come from, how long had it been underground, and could you hit things with it? These were the interests of the military in particular, but decades later, they still couldn’t say—not until Rose, now a leading figure in her field, headed up a second investigation.

In short order, she found that the hand was but a bit of a monolithic machine—a mech, I mean—the body parts of which had been buried around the world. After several international incidents, the rest of the robot was recovered, leaving Rose and her team to assemble Themis. Before long a pair of pilots were walking in it, astonishing the population of the planet in the process. But… well, why? What was it all for?

If Sleeping Giants left with you questions, know that there are answers to be had in the surprising second installment of The Themis Files. They come thick and fast, in fact.

In a sense, Sylvain Neuvel’s entertaining debut related humanity’s coming of age, and now that we’re all grown up—now that we know we’re not alone in the universe—Waking Gods wants to see how we’ll behave in the face of an alien danger.

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Austerity Measures: Waking Hell by Al Robertson

On the back of one of the best debuts in recent memory, Al Robertson rounds up a brand new cast of characters for his second successive stop at Station. Absent “the dynamic duo” that was Jack and Hugo—respectively “an accountant of the future [and] a psychotic virtual ventriloquist’s dummy,” in the words of the award-nominated author—Waking Hell isn’t as compelling as Crashing Heaven, but between its excellently embellished setting and a narrative that boasts more momentum than most, there are moments when it comes close.

As of the outset, much has changed on Station, the battle-scarred asteroid where what’s left of humanity lives under the purview of a pantheon of corporate gods:

Two and a half years before […] Jack Forster, Hugo Fist and Andrea Hui had worked with the Totality to release the dead from semi-sentient slavery. But the Rebirth was just the start of a longer coming of age. It was one thing for ten thousand weaveselves to be reborn as fully self-aware continuations of ended lives—quite another for them to come to terms with that new start, both as individuals and as a group, and understand what to do with it. When Leila stepped out of the sea and into her new, post-mortal life, she became part of that conversation.

The hero at the heart of Waking Hell has had to hoe a hard road in the years since her resurrection as a fetch. Initially, those like Leila Fenech were seen as sub-human, to be used and routinely abused by the living before being disposed of, like so much deleted data. The events of Crashing Heaven changed that; now, fetches finally have rights.

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Minutes to Midnight: The End of the Day by Claire North

I’ve fallen for every one of Claire North’s novels. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, Touch, and The Sudden Appearance of Hope have between them broken my heart and expanded my mind. They’ve thrilled me and they’ve chilled me. By way of them I’ve been exposed to new places, new ideas—new ways of being, even. But if I had to level a single criticism against her thoughtful body of work, it would have to be directed at its measure, because whilst her texts have tackled a great many meaningful themes, not least the array of ways we determine identity, I’ve found North’s literary positions a little non-committal.

That’s not the case in The End of the Day. This is a book with something to say; something important, if I may. It’s slow to start, and oddly episodic even when the plot has picked up; its characters come and go with next to no notice; it’s difficult, and confusing, and contradictory—but that’s what life is like, right? And the messy, maddening, magical gift of life we’ve all been given, that’s what The End of the Day deals in: not death… although its principal perspective is on her payroll.

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Under a Red Reign: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

The second Dominion of the Fallen novel sees Aliette de Bodard return to the city of down-on-their-luck divinities she depicted so delicately in The House of Shattered Wings in the company of a cast of characters that were in the background of book one. In that sense it’s a sequel, however The House of Binding Thorns stands as a striking example of a story that both stands alone and expands.

Welcome, then—or welcome back, perhaps—to the capital of France after the collapse. Some sixty years on from “the cataclysm that had devastated Paris, reducing monuments to blackened rubble, turning the Seine dark with the dangerous residues of spells, and leaving booby traps that still hadn’t vanished,” the angels who fell from heaven on that dark day have organised themselves into powerful houses, very much in the mode of the mafia. Indeed, de Bodard doubles down on that extended metaphor in The House of Binding Thorns, in that its narrative is driven by drug trafficking and an addict on the road to recovery is its principle perspective.

But the drug doing the damage in postwar Paris is no conventional concoction of chemicals. It is, instead, angel essence: the magic-amplifying fiber of the Fallen. It is “the promise of pleasure, of power,” and power is what every mob boss wants, what every mob boss will do anything to get…

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Eternamente: Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

It says a lot that I look back on Luna: New Moon almost lovingly rather than remembering how maddening and demanding a novel it was. Outside of his exemplary young adult efforts, Ian McDonald has rarely been easy to read, but I found the first stretch of said text tremendously testing. Yet for every ounce of effort I expended, Luna: New Moon repaid in spades, much as the Mackenzies do with their debts.

The Mackenzies are but one of the five faithless families at the heart of Luna: Wolf Moon, the second part of McDonald’s narrative: a surprisingly accessible successor assuming you’ve finished the book it builds on. And build it does, on much of the hard work of the first: on the harsh mistress of the moon that is its desperate setting, and on the very much in motion story, which focuses on the clashing clans whose mandate is to somehow succeed on that satellite.

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Storms of the Century: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Not for the first time, and not, I can only hope, for the last, Kim Stanley Robinson takes aim at climate change in New York 2140, an immensely necessary novel as absorbing as it is sprawling about how that city among cities, so close to so many hearts, moves forward following floods that raise the seas fifty feet.

The Big Apple has been blighted. Uptown, being uptown both figuratively and literally, came through the crises brought on by humanity’s hard-to-kick carbon habit relatively well, but downtown, everything is different. Submerged, the streets between buildings are cast now as canals. Nobody has a car anymore, but boats are mainstays on the waterways. Pedestrians must make do with jetties, or walk the dizzying bridges between those skyscrapers that haven’t already collapsed after losing the ongoing fight to stay watertight.

Needless to say, New York as we know it is no more. But New Yorkers? Why, for good or for ill, they’re New Yorkers still!

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The Answer is Trees: The Erstwhile by Brian Catling

More than four years on from The Vorrh, professor and performance artist Brian Catling is back with a book that explodes the exceptional premise of its predecessor at the same time as falling short of fulfilling its awesome promise.

The Erstwhile shifts the focus of the darkly fantastic fiction from the forest around which the first volume revolved to one of its many denizens. “No one quite knew what they were. But they had been given a name, which translated into ‘of Before’ or ‘the Previous’ and finally settled as “the Erstwhile.’ Some said they were ‘undead, angels, spirits embodied in flesh.’ All that was known was they were as ancient as the forest itself.” And the vast Vorrh, held close to the heart of Africa like an unspeakable secret, is at least as old as us. Indeed, “there is a deep belief that this land is sacred and may be the physical geographic location of the biblical Eden.”

What business, then, does man have messing with it?

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Metropolitan Monsters: Revealing The Furthest Station by Ben Aaronovitch

The Rivers of London series, in which a squad of sardonic detectives investigate supernatural offences in and around England’s capital city, has been a regular pleasure for many readers in recent years. Not necessarily because of its premise, which at this point is practically proverbial, but because Ben Aaronovitch’s execution of said has been exceptional: sensitive, smart, and supported by a sharp sense of humour that runs through the books like the Thames itself.

Hasn’t hurt that, up until recently, a new novel featuring PC Peter Grant and his fellows in The Folly has been released every year. But the break between book five, Foxglove Summer, and last year’s The Hanging Tree changed that pattern. Happily, however, there was still some Rivers of London fun to be had by way of the canonical comic book Body Work and its several successors, namely Night Witch and the ongoing Black Mould.

Alas, it looks like we might be in for a similarly painful wait between the recent release of The Hanging Tree and the seventh volume in Aaronovitch’s bestselling series, which has the working title Lies Sleeping. But unto every cloud a silver lining, right? Well, quite, as Gollancz has just announced The Furthest Station, a brand-new novella it plans to publish this very September.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

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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