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Niall Alexander

The Great Catastrophe: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

The epic journey that began in The Passage finally comes full circle in The City of Mirrors, a proper doorstopper of a novel that satisfies somewhat in spite of its sheer size and a hell of a hammy bad guy.

I have such fond memories of the beginning of this trilogy, which paired an awesome and expansive apocalypse—one up there, in my estimation, with the end of the world in Swan Song and The Stand—with a truly heartbreaking tale of loss on the small scale. By the denouement of that book, I had no idea where the story as a whole was going to go, but I knew that I wanted to know. And then… well.

The Twelve wasn’t terrible. It had a couple of a kick-ass action scenes, and some stirring slower moments that allowed Justin Cronin to explore the emotions of his vast cast of characters. But almost every other inch of that many-inched monolith of a novel felt like filler; texture at best and time-wasting at worst. In that respect, The City of Mirrors splits the difference. It doesn’t meander as much as its messy predecessor did, but nor, on the back of such bloat, and with more of its own to add to the tally, can it recapture the magic of The Passage.

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Present Tense: The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

Life is complicated—not least because it’s so frickin’ unpredictable. But there are a few things you can be sure of. One day, you and I will die; come what may, there’ll be plenty of taxes to pay along the way; and, as Isaac Newton concluded, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction will happen.

In real terms, that means that what we do dictates what is done to us. Hurt someone and you can expect to be hurt in turn. Make someone happy and perhaps they’ll pay that happiness back. This behavioural balance relies on our ability to remember, however. Without that… well, what would you do if you knew the world would forget you?

You’d let loose, wouldn’t you?

Hope Arden, for her part, does exactly that in Catherine Webb’s third novel as Claire North, which, like Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August before it, is an engrossing, globe-trotting interrogation of identity that sits comfortably between Bourne and Buffy.

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Ashes to Ashes: The Fireman by Joe Hill

Unlike some, I have a soft spot for Heart-Shaped Box, and a lot of love for Horns, but even I’d agree that NOS4A2 is Joe Hill’s strongest novel—not least, I believe, because it’s also his longest. The larger than life-sized story it told and the complex characters explored over its engrossing course simply couldn’t have come to be without the room to breathe its length allowed, so when I found out The Fireman was similarly thick, I was pleased.

And it’s an awesome novel, naturally: an apocalyptic parable written from the perspective of an infectiously happy heroine every millimetre as meaty and memorable as Ms. Vic McQueen, and whose hellish ex gives Charles Talent Manx a run for his money. But for all that The Fireman kicks off brilliantly and ends tremendously well, the middle section of the text—an epic in and of itself—tends towards the plodding and the predictable.

[It begins with the world burning.]

Are Physical Books Back After “A Bad Attack of Technodazzle”?

The book hasn’t had an easy time of it recently. Here, there and everywhere, headlines have alleged that the death of traditional print publishing is inevitable, and to date, these doom-laden declarations have been borne out by sales data that does indeed demonstrate a decline in the appetites of physical book buyers. But last week, a study by the Publishers Association revealed something surprising: that “sales of print books are rising, while digital sales are down for the first time since the invention of the e-reader.”

A couple of (clearly quite excitable) commentators have taken this to mean that “peak digital” is in the past—that the industry simply “suffered a bad attack of technodazzle” as ebook sales skyrocketed and the trade in printed editions fell commensurately.

[But there’s more to the story…]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Borderlands: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Children of Earth and Sky sees contemporary fiction’s finest fantasist return to the site of the Sarantine Mosaic and the subjects of The Lions of Al-Rassan in a magnificently modest affair more interested in the myriad men and women caught in the crossfire of the holy war that flickers around its fringes than it is that momentous event.

The most apparent casualty of the the conflict so far is the city of cities itself, for just as Constantinople was toppled by the Ottomans, Sarantium in all its unimaginable majesty has finally fallen to the followers of an indomitable conqueror. It’s known, now, as Asharias, “and the man who ruled there amid gardens where silence was apparently the law on pain of strangulation […] wanted to rule the world.” You might imagine his megalomaniacal designs would inspire the several cities in the vicinity to put aside their trivial differences—after all, if Sarantium can be successfully sieged, then nowhere is safe from the Osmanli Empire’s plans to expand.

[You’d be mistaken, I’m afraid.]

2016: An Arthur C. Clarke Award Odyssey

The thirtieth anniversary of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the most prestigious prize for science fiction in Britain, is unquestionably an occasion for celebration, but just five years ago, “funding was abruptly withdrawn [and] the award could well have died on its arse,” as Martin Lewis, one of the judges during that painful period, puts it.

Now that the Clarke Award is presumably out of the woods, Tom Hunter, who came on board as Award Director in the wake of that scare, has kicked off a conversation about “the ways we might change the award in years to come,” and let me be clear: the “we” is operative here. Hunter wants as many interested parties as possible to play a part in the resulting discussion.

Where to start? Well, where other science fiction and fantasy awards often offer multiple categories and cover many different media, the Clarke award has always thrived on the simplicity of its proposition: one category, one shortlist, one best science fiction novel of the year. We now receive more submissions than ever before, from something like 40 books a year when I first joined, to more than 100 today.

It’s a formula that continues to work, but we’re not unaware of the changes afoot across the publishing industry and the science fiction community. The big question for us is how do we best play our part?

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Olsem Difren: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

World Fantasy Award winner Lavie Tidhar rewrites the rules of the short story collection in Central Station, an ambitious assemblage of thirteen tales tall but indubitably true that are all the more remarkable when read together.

“Substantially different versions” of eleven of the efforts it collects were previously published, in various venues, between November 2011 and September 2014, and the handful of them that I read then impressed me immensely. ‘The Smell of Orange Groves‘ and ‘The Lord of Discarded Things,’ for instance, represented intimate glimpses into the lives of a few of the disaffected folks who call the “bordertown” at the base of the Central Station spaceport home.

[But here, those stories are so much more.]

Gesso on Linen: Zero K by Don DeLillo

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” begins Don DeLillo’s first new novel since Point Omega in 2010, and like the finest opening lines, Zero K’s is soaked through with significance.

Fittingly for a work of fiction interested in “fathers and sons,” this is a remark Ross Lockhart, a billionaire in his sixties, makes to Jeffrey—his aimless heir, and our narrator—as they stand in his opulent New York office, surrounded on all sides by abstract art and other markers of money: motifs readers will encounter repeatedly as they make their way through Zero K. It’s important to note, furthermore, that this phrase is not spoken in the moment, but rather recalled by “a man propelled into obsessive reflection.”

As to the words themselves… well. To own is to possess, yes, but these days, it also denotes domination, and this is what Ross wants: to use his dollars to dominate the end of the world. That’s not to say the apocalypse, but the end of the world as we mere mortals perceive it, at the very end of our selves—in death.

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Announcing the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

There can be only one, ultimately. But we’re a lot closer to knowing what that one will be now that the hundred-some submissions considered for the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award have been narrowed down to a shortlist of just six.

Said six were named and acclaimed as part of the opening ceremony of the SCI-FI-LONDON film festival on the evening of the April 27. They are:

  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
  • Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

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J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Book of the Film of the Book

Hold fast to your sorting hats, my fellow muggles and No-Majs across the Atlantic, because “the publishing event of the year” has some commanding company!

See, in addition to the Special Rehearsal Edition of the script of the impending play, namely Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two—which, for what it’s worth, will be withdrawn and replaced with a so-called Definitive Edition at a later date—fans of J. K. Rowling’s wizarding world now have another new book to look forward to, as Little, Brown announced yesterday (alongside Scholastic in the States) that it means to release Rowling’s screenplay for the forthcoming film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the day after it hits cinemas.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The Evil Within: HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt

An ancient, archetypal evil meets a miscellany of modern motfis—such as surveillance and social media—in HEX, the first of Dutch wunderkind Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s five genre novels (of which this is the fifth) to be translated into the English language.

You may well have heard of the aforementioned author already; after all, he won the Hugo Award for Best Novelette in 2015, and was nominated for another unsettling short story, “The Boy Who Cast No Shadow,” two years previously. HEX is longform horror, however, and longform horror is hard, not least because the unknowable, on the back of which so much such fiction is built, can only remain so for so long before folks get sick and tired of not knowing.

Yet in HEX, we know what would be unknowable in most horror novels from the get-go: the cause and the consequences of the ghost that has haunted the heart of the Hudson Valley for hundreds of years.

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Let The Clown Wars Commence! Revealing Blood & Aspic by Joseph D’Lacey & Jeremy Drysdale

In the first weeks of 2016, Joseph D’Lacey—British Fantasy Award-winning author of the magnificently malevolent Meat, in addition to Roadkill, Garbage Man, Black Feathers and a bunch of other wonderfully bloody books—wrote that sometimes, if you love something, you have to let it go. He was referring to his newest novel: a collaboration with screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale which, absent an agent, a publicist and a publisher, had no natural path to market.

At the time, he was toying with the idea of releasing the book we now know as Blood & Aspic for free, but his blog post prompted an outpouring of support from a whole host of folks who were opposed to him giving his hard work away, so D’Lacey and Drysdale opted, ultimately, to consider a couple of other options—such as self-publishing.

[Bring out the clowns!]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Coming of Age: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

When the ground beneath her feet disappears for the first time, eleven year old Rose Franklin is excitedly riding her bike around the block in her home town in sleepy South Dakota. Hours later, she wakes up in the clutches of “a giant metal hand” with a bit of a headache, but otherwise unharmed.

The military take ownership of the hand almost immediately, and a cover-up of course commences. Once everyone has been sworn to secrecy, the Powers That Be bring the boffins in, but nothing they discover makes any sense. The artifact appears to be something like six thousand years old, which “flies in the face of everything we know about American civilisations.” It’s primarily made of iridium, an immensely dense metal mined from meteorites, mostly—yet the hand is “inexplicably light given its composition.” Last but not least, the piece came complete with a handful of panels covered in carvings that glow even though they’ve no light source.

It takes seventeen years for the military to admit that it doesn’t have the first clue what to do and hand the hand off to the University of Chicago for further research. Its experts, too, are baffled to begin with—until they bring Rose Franklin in to head up the study.

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The Extinction Event is Jurassic London’s Last Act

This is the end, my friends.

Jurassic London, the not for profit small press founded in 2011 by Anne C. Perry and Jared Shurin to showcase “the continued relevance, creativity and fun to be found in literature, especially genre fiction,” announced a number of things on Monday—not least that it’d be closing its doors come its fifth anniversary in October, following the publication of one last anthology.

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Someone Else’s Memories: Revealing A Window into Time by Peter F. Hamilton

Book a couple of weeks off work, Peter F. Hamilton fans, because not only do you have his next door-stopper, namely Night Without Stars, to look forward to—A Window into Time will also be along shortly to tide you over till the conclusion of The Chronicle of the Fallers.

Bizarrely for Hamilton, whose normally enormous novels have strained the shelves of discerning science fiction fans since The Night’s Dawn trilogy kicked off in 1996, A Window into Time is a “small and perfectly-formed” novella set to be released as an ebook in late July. “A high-concept mystery set in London, with a compelling time-travel twist,” it’s also unusual for the bestselling fella “in that it isn’t set in the future,” nor does it appear to “feature a lot of shiny Science Fictional technology.”

[Covers and blurbs of both books coming right up!]

Series: British Fiction Focus