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Niall Alexander

Cultural Exchange: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

“If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden,” muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying my copy of Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty-four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami’s legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a planter of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.

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The Girl in the Red Dress: Revealing Paris Adrift by E. J. Swift

Paris: la ville lumière! It’s the city of light, the city of love, and the setting of E. J. Swift’s next novel: “a breathtaking tale of time travel” starring a young lady, name of Hallie, and her bartending friends.

E. J. Swift, for those of you who don’t know, is the author of The Osiris Project—an underrated science fiction trilogy set in a world totally transformed by climate change—and a number of award-nominated (not to mention excellent) short stories, such as ‘Saga’s Children’ and ‘The Spiders of Stockholm’.

Part and parcel with the announcement of her new book is the news that the author seems to have parted ways with her previous publisher, Del Rey UK, as Paris Adrift has been snapped up by Solaris. Swift herself is delighted about this development. “They are a fantastic team,” she said, “and I’m very much looking forward to working with them over the coming months.” Little wonder given that one of the first things the publisher of Paris Adrift did was approach the incomparable Joey Hi-Fi to come up with some cover art…

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Catastrophic Consequences: New Novel America City by Chris Beckett

News of not one but two new books from Chris Beckett broke before the weekend. The first, America City, marks something of a sea change for the Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning author, “in that all three of its predecessors were set on [his] sunless planet, Eden, but this takes place in North America in the twenty-second century. No more glowing forests or hmmmphing trees,” then, though Beckett believes readers “may still be able to spot links of various kinds between America City and the Eden books.”

They’re not obvious from the synopsis, so I’m going to guess the connections Beckett mentions are thematic rather than substantial. See for yourself:

The United States a century in the future. As a result of climate change, powerful hurricanes hit the east coast every year, each time a little further north. And large areas of the southern half of the US have insufficient water, meaning that many towns and cities, and whole swathes of farmland, are no longer viable. Each year a steady stream of refugees from southern states heads north, but they meet an increasingly frosty welcome, and some northern states are threatening frontier controls to keep them out.

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The Last Night: City of Miracles by Robert Jackson Bennett

The Divine Cities series comes full circle in City of Miracles, a positively action-packed fantasy about getting your own back. But revenge is not just what the hardy anti-hero at its heart is after: revenge is also what its both figuratively and literally tortured villain is interested in.

This child of the night, who shall not be named because to identify him is to invite his wickedness in, is not a divinity like the other antagonists of Robert Jackson Bennett’s incomparable narrative—at least, not quite. He’s really just an angsty adolescent; a “selfish kid who thinks his misfortunes are bigger than everyone else’s” and has decided to take his frustrations out on everyone around him.

Unfortunately for everyone around him, this angsty adolescent just so happens to be the spawn of a few fallen gods. To wit, he has a domain—the dark—and some of his mother and father’s magic. City of Miracles begins with him flexing his miraculous muscles: by outfitting an assassin to slaughter the former Prime Minister—and the first of this spectacular saga’s protagonists—Ashara Komayd.

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In Parenthesis: The Boy on the Bridge by M. R. Carey

Whether it’s a character that captures us or a narrative that enraptures us, a situation that speaks to something unspoken or a conflict that builds on something broken—who can say, on this or any other day, what makes a book a bestseller? The quality of a given novel has next to nothing to do with its success on store shelves, that’s for sure. Plenty of bad books have shifted millions, and many more deserving efforts have come and gone to no such notice. It’s a blessing, then, when a truly wonderful work of fiction becomes a bestseller… but it can also be a burden.

The Girl With all the Gifts was probably the best zombie novel to have been released in recent years, and it sold hella well—well enough to spawn a movie that was also pretty swell. But while the next book to bear M. R. Carey’s name was a dark delight in its own right, Fellside didn’t catch on in the same way, I’m afraid.

To wit, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I heard that Carey’s new novel was a sidequel of sorts to The Girl With all the Gifts. I was, however, concerned; concerned that setting a second story in the same world that Melanie and Miss Justineau so wholly inhabited ran the risk of diminishing their devastating adventures. Happily, The Boy on the Bridge bears its burden brilliantly, and I can only hope it’s as blessed by the book-buying public as its predecessor.

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Announcing the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

Earlier today, Serendip announced the nominees for the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award, an annual prize presented to “the best science fiction novel […] whose UK first edition was published in the previous calendar year.” The six shortlisted works were selected from 86 submissions—a number slightly down from the hundred-plus highs seen recently.

Sitting on the panel of judges this year are Una McCormack and Shana Worthen of the British Science Fiction Association, Paul-March Russell and Andrew McKie of the Science Fiction Foundation, and Charles Christian of the SCI-FI London Film Festival. Their chair, Andrew M. Butler, had this to say about the shortlist:

“Every year our industrious judges sift through scores of novels to pick six to represent the state of the SF field. [This year] they’ve chosen a first timer and a previous winner, as well as writers in the process of building great reputations. Any of these could win—at this point I cannot begin to guess.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

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