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Niall Alexander

Till the World Burns: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Sometimes you only see how special something is when you look back at it later. Sometimes that something needs a hot second to properly settle into your subconscious. And that’s fine, I figure. I’d go so far as to say that, for me at least, be it because the job requires me to read rather a lot or not, it’s surprising to be struck by something straightaway. But even I didn’t need the benefit of retrospect to bring home how brilliant the Hugo Award-winning beginning of The Broken Earth was. I realised I was reading something remarkable—something “rich, relevant and resonant,” as I wrote in my review of The Fifth Season—before I’d seen the back of the first act, and when the full measure of the power of its perspectives was made plain, it became a comprehensive confirmation of N. K. Jemisin as one of our very finest fantasists.

I stand by that, looking back—as I stand by my criticisms of its “surprisingly circumspect” successor. I said then that The Obelisk Gate sacrificed some The Fifth Season’s substance and sense of momentum to tell a slighter and slower story, and I’ll say that again today, never mind the passage of time or the news that it, too, just took home a Hugo. With The Stone Sky now behind me, however, and The Broken Sky closed, I do recognise that The Obelisk Gate played a pivotal role in the whole. It was the calm before the storm.

[And the storm The Stone Sky chronicles is one like none other.]

Colson Whitehead Is the Winner of the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award

This evening, at a special ceremony held at Foyles’ flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road in lovely London, the winner of the 31st annual Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. A suitably celebratory spread of genre readers, writers and industry figures were in attendance as the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction literature was awarded to Colson Whitehead for his “intensely moving” novel The Underground Railroad.

Andrew M. Butler, chair of a panel of judges that included representatives of the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival, expressed delight at the decision, describing Whitehead’s sixth novel—which concerns a pair of slaves fighting for their freedom along the length of a subterranean railway—as “a gripping account both of humanity’s inhumanity and the potential for resistance, underpinned by science fiction’s ability to make metaphor literal.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

More Than the Sum: Check out the UK Edition of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

When Sarah Maria Griffin moved to America in 2012, she found herself dealing with feelings that must be familiar to many emigrants. “Floundering, facing unemployment and missing her hometown of Dublin,” she decided to write her way through those dark days. That’s how her quarter-life memoir, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, happened, and Griffin acknowledges that her first novel proper deals with some of the same themes:

It’s a story about alienation and anxiety, and how that can drive a person to create—against all odds. It’s also about technology and religion, and where those things meet and divide. It took until after it was finished to realise that ultimately it’s a book about making something in order to feel less alone in the world, which is far from what it started out as.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Alienated: The Rift by Nina Allan

Around the middle of The Rift, a sister who insists that her traumatic twenty-year disappearance came about because she woke up in another world says, by way of explaining why she now shelves her novels in with her non-fiction, that “no book is completely true or completely a lie. A famous philosopher at the Lyceum once said that the written word has a closer relationship to memory than the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones. Anyway, it’s more interesting. When you shelve books alphabetically you stop noticing them, don’t you find?”

I may be too time-poor to even contemplate such an almighty organisational endeavour, and yet… I’m tempted, because there’s some truth to Julie’s attitude, I’m sure. Once something becomes known, you do stop noticing it—and there’s so much in the world that needs noticing, so much that in a sense deserves the extra attention. Not least Nina Allan’s new novel, which, like her last—namely The Race, a story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality—mixes the real with the unreal to tell a uniquely human tale, albeit one that may contain aliens.

[Then again, it may not.]

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