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Niall Alexander

Dear God, Who Aren’t in Heaven: The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt’s new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it’s more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. “Fact is […] I feel old,” He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that “had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton.” An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits that He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.

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She’s Electric: Naomi Alderman Wins the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

When, two hundred thousand words into what was to be her next novel, English author Naomi Alderman decided to ditch her current work in progress to focus, instead, on a feminist science fiction story about a world in which women can electrocute men just by laying their hands on them, she couldn’t have had a clue just what that book would do.

But that book just became the first work of speculative fiction to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Published in the UK late last year by Penguin, The Power is—in the words of this year’s Chair of Judges, Tessa Ross—a “brilliantly imagined dystopia” whose “big ideas” the four judges under her jurisdiction just kept coming back to, despite a hotly-contested shortlist.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.

Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place.

Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn’t ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because “Rotherweird don’t do cars,” as his toothless chauffeur tells him—”an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums,” and driven by a laughably affable madman.

[Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems?]

Out of the Darkness: Revealing After the Fire by Will Hill

Will Hill has a new novel!

Who knew?

I didn’t, till he finally talked about it on his “badly neglected” blog. But it’s a thing—a thing you can, and probably should, read RIGHT NOW.

Will Hill, in case you weren’t aware, is the author of the Department 19 novels: a series about a sixteen year old and a secret organisation that defends against supernatural terrorism which I know sounds silly and maybe even a little derivative, but as Blacklight’s newest recruit Jamie Carpenter learned early on in the novels, appearances can be deeply deceiving. These were books that broke the mold; books that thrilled and chilled at the same time as touching on truths so personal and so powerful that they won me and many others over.

But Department 19 is dusted and done, as of humanity’s last stand in Darkest Night, and After the Fire is just now begun. “It’s something entirely new, and very different, for me at least,” Hill has it. “It’s a standalone YA novel, and (I think) it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Dial H for Hitchcock: Revealing The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

“A near-future conspiracy thriller told with […] trademark wit and intelligence,” Adam Roberts’ next novel is almost upon us. “Inspired by a scene Alfred Hitchcock wanted to film for North by Northwest but couldn’t manage,” The Real-Town Murders revolves around a disenfranchised private eye called Alma:

Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. She is one of the few who doesn’t use it, but most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country, as a consequence, is crumbling.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

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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