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Niall Alexander

The End of an Era: Simon Spanton Departs Gollancz

Sad news, genre fiction fans: November 20, which is to say today, is Associate Publisher Simon Spanton’s last at Gollancz. It isn’t gilding the lily in the least to say that his departure—“by mutual agreement,” according to a statement supplied by the imprint’s parent—marks the end of an era. A truly epic one, to be sure.

His achievements in the nineteen years he’s been a part of the Orion Publishing Group are too numerous to list in any great detail here, but suffice it to say we have Spanton to thank, in large part, for some of the finest speculative fiction released since the turn of the century. If you’ve ever spent a spell sucking up Scott Lynch, or jonesing for Joe Abercrombie, or relaxing with Richard Morgan, know that though he’s “definitely more Arthur Dent than Takeshi Kovacs,” Spanton has been behind the scenes, helping to make the magic happen.

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Here Be Monsters: Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: “maps of the world” meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth’s spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre, at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we’re to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me… I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight.

[That and a hundred other reasons, even.]

Forget Me Not: Claire North’s Next

With the digital release this week of The Gameshouse novellas—that is to say The Serpent, The Thief and The Master, which “can be read separately but also fit together to make a complete, intricately woven tale”—the time has come to start talking about what’s next for Catherine Webb’s nom de plume Claire North.

Long story short: a lot, is what—beginning with the novel formerly known as Forget Me Not. Like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch before it, The Sudden Appearance of Hope—as it shall be known henceforth—is another interrogation of identity.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

At the End of the Tunnel: The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.

What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we’re changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew’s languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he’ll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.

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Death Becomes Him: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

“I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction,” confesses Stephen King in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams—an unusually introspective yet no less effective collection of eighteen variously terrifying tales, plus a few pieces of poetry, from the affable author of last year’s similarly reflective Revival.

This is far from the first time King has discussed his “struggle to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realisation of that idea’s potential,” and although, as readers, we only have the end product to parse, the ideas the Edgar Award winner explores here—and the characters, and the narratives—are not at all inadequate. If anything, in dispensing with the hallmarks of Halloweeny horror to which his bibliography is so bound in order to investigate a goody bag of markedly more grounded goings-on, the stories brought together in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams number among King’s most thoughtful and evocative.

[Which isn’t to say they ain’t scary…]

A New NME: The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

From the writer of Beast in the Basement, a decent number of Doctor Who audiobooks “and further tomfoolery” such as A Sincere Warning About the Entity in Your Home comes The Last Days of Jack Sparks: a “chilling and utterly immersive” account of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the eponymous provocateur and pop culture critic.

To his fans, Jack was a fearless rebel; to his detractors he was a talentless hack. Either way, his death came as a shock to everyone. It was no secret that Jack had been researching the occult for his new book. He’d already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed in rural Italy.  Then there was that video: thirty-six seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed…

[…until now.]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Watching the World Burn: The Fireman by Joe Hill

In case you weren’t aware, there’s a new novel by Joe Hill on the horizon. It’s called The Fireman, and apparently it “marks a remarkable new direction for the bestselling author”—one Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn is confident will take Hill’s already-astronomical career to new heights.

Said to be a synthesis of “the epic scope of The Passage and the emotional impact of The Road,” this apocalyptic thriller is “set in a world overtaken by an incurable runaway pathogen that causes death by spontaneous combustion.”

[No one is safe.]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Time Was: Slade House by David Mitchell

Though there have ever been elements of the speculative in David Mitchell’s fiction, his Man Booker Prize longlisted-last, released last year, was the first to fully embrace the form. Section by section, The Bone Clocks revealed itself to be “a soaring supernatural sextet” somewhat taken with time travel and very interested indeed in immortality. Unfortunately, the protracted finale of Mitchell’s sixth made a middling meal of the same fantastical flourishes that had been so appealing when presented with more measure—an oversight I’m pleased to say he sets right in his latest.

Not so much a novel as a collection of interlinked short stories, Slade House shares a world with The Bone Clocks—such that the Shaded Way has a pivotal role to play and Spot the Horologist is the game of the day—but where said setting was once an expansive canvas spattered with the stuff of science fiction, in this book it becomes the close-cropped backdrop of a hypnotic history of haunting.

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The End of the Eternals: Covering Those Below

Late last week, Hodder & Stoughton unveiled the remarkable cover art Rhett Podersoo has crafted for Those Below, the concluding volume of Daniel Polansky’s Empty Throne duology, and I figured it might be a fine time to have few words with one of the most promising genre authors to have appeared on the scene in recent years—not least because the blurb provided by the publisher of the forthcoming book was so unbelievably brief:

For centuries humanity has served Those Above, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city. They built a civilisation of unimagined beauty and unchecked viciousness. They thought themselves invincible. They were wrong. 

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Announcing the 2015 British Fantasy Award Winners

At a ceremony held on Sunday afternoon in the East Midlands Conference Centre and Orchard Hotel in Nottingham, following a mighty meal of courses including home cured ham salad, ricotta and spinach gnocci and a lime jelly served with dark chocolate and salted sauce, the winners of the 2015 British Fantasy Awards were announced to a room full of full people, I’m sure, in addition to any number of other FantasyCon 2015 attendees.

The first award of the afternoon, alphabetically at least, was to act an indicator of what was to come: a diverse and I dare say deserving array of acclamations for the best authors, artists, editors and other entities involved in the British genre fiction industry.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Return to Sender: Covering Dead Letters

After 499 years of public ownership, the UK’s primary postal service, namely the Royal Mail, will celebrate the 500th anniversary of its founding in 2016 as an entirely private enterprise. I’m not sure what plans the PLC has to revel in its heritage, but Dead Letters represents a humorously perfectly passive-aggressive way to start the party: with an anthology composed in memoriam of the massive amounts of mail the Royal Mail has lost.

The Dead Letters Office: the final repository of the undelivered. Love missives unread, gifts unreceived, lost in postal limbo. Dead Letters: An Anthology of the Undelivered, the Missing and the Returned features new stories from the masters of horror, fantasy and speculative fiction, each inspired by an inhabitant of the Office.

Read on for the complete table of contents, which includes original fiction by Joanne Harris, Adam LG Nevill, Maria Dahvana Headley & China Mieville among others, and your first look at Julia Lloyd’s characterful cover art.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Back in Black: The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School by Kim Newman

It’s a credit to Kim Newman that he only rarely writes the novels you think he will. Just look at his last book: An English Ghost Story indubitably did what its title described, but it was—weirdly, wonderfully—as comical as it was creepy, and as interested in depicting the dysfunctional family it followed as it was the spectral presence that pushed them to the inevitable precipice.

Newman’s newest—which purports to be the start of a series by Louise Magellan Teazle, the previous occupant of the haunted house at the heart of the aforementioned narrative—is not dissimilar in its evisceration of expectations. The Secrets of Drearcliff Grange School appears to be one thing, namely a classical magical academy narrative along the lines of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. And it is! And it isn’t…

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Bound in Blood: A Borrowed Man by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe continues to play with the nature of narrators in his mostly notional new novel A Borrowed Man, a middling murder mystery explicated from the perspective of a posthumous author pretending to be a detective.

The story starts with Colette Coldbrook: sweetheart teacher, well-spoken socialite and, in the early parts of the narrative, something of a survivor. A year or so ago, she suddenly lost her mother; a little later, her father suffered a suspicious heart attack; and in the aftermath of that latter’s passing, her beloved brother was straight-up strangled. She has no-one to turn to, now, and so many questions—not least about the unassuming book Conrad Coldbrook Junior found in Conrad Coldbrook Senior’s safe.

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Different Ellipticals: Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson

In a world where the Powers That Be have deemed any and all secrets illegal, Zeke Thomas must go against the flow he’s always followed when he inherits a sealed envelope containing information which could sink the system that’s kept humanity alive since the Collapse. Meanwhile, in the year 1843, Zeke’s time-removed relative, Zadock, has to leave his one true love languishing in her sickbed to deliver a highly sensitive letter to a legendary general embedded deep in the disputed territory of Texas.

An incredibly presented “illuminated novel” which, like last year’s S., blends form and function with history and mystery to realise a reading experience that amazes from the first page, Bats of the Republic comes from the co-founder of a small press specialising in “strange and beautiful fiction and nonfiction” with a sideline in detail-oriented design, so the unusual shape Zachary Thomas Dodson’s debut takes shouldn’t be such a surprise.

[And yet…]