Tor.com content by

Niall Alexander

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Normal by Warren Ellis

For all our whistle-blowing and brainstorming, for all our back-slapping and activist hacking, for all the awareness we’ve raised and for all the progress we’ve made—for all that, it’s not going well, the world.

That, at least, is what Adam Dearden believes, and, as a futurist who’s resided on both sides of the aisle, he should know. Knowing what he knows, though, doesn’t mean he can do a damn thing about it. That frustration recently reached fever-pitch for him when, whilst working in Windhoek, he saw something he shouldn’t have seen; something that sent him over the proverbial edge.

[He gazed into the abyss for a living…]

Poetry in Motion: An Interview with Anna Smaill

A couple of weeks ago, if you’d said you hadn’t read any Anna Smaill, I’d have been sad, but not entirely surprised. Long story short, she’s the author of a book of poetry, namely The Violinist in Spring, and a novel, first released in February 2015, called The Chimes.

Now I loved that novel—“to call The Chimes striking is I dare say to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade” is how I put it in my rave of a review—but I’ve loved any number of novels during my time here at Tor.com, and I don’t actually expect you to act on my every recommendation. To wit: if, a fortnight or so ago, you hadn’t quite gotten around to The Chimes, that would have been fine. Not so much now that it’s went and won the World Fantasy Award, beating out some truly brilliant books by Kazuo Ishiguro, N. K. Jemisin, Naomi Novik, K. J. Parker, and Paul Tremblay; now you really do need to read it.

In the wake of her win, I spoke with Anna Smaill about memory, legacy, genre, music and community. Our conversation follows.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The End of the Line: Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson

Both in Britain and abroad, so much has changed in the years since the release of Dave Hutchinson’s Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Europe in Autumn that the mind positively boggles. In 2014 I described its depiction of a Europe decimated by division “as plausible as it is novel,” but I’ll be damned if it isn’t beginning to look visionary.

What shape the differences democracy has recently wrought will take is, as yet, anyone’s guess. Everything’s up for grabs, not least the ideals we hold nearest and dearest—just as they are in the world of the Fractured Europe sequence: a manic mosaic of “nations and polities and duchies and sanjaks and earldoms and principalities and communes.”

The situation was, if anything, even worse the further East you went. Beyond Rus—European Russia—and Sibir was a patchwork of republics and statelets and nations and kingdoms and khanates and ‘stans which had been crushed out of existence by History, reconstituted, fragmented, reinvented, fragmented again, absorbed, reabsorbed and recreated.”

But that’s not all—hell, that’s not even the half of it—as readers of Europe at Midnight will recall.

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Renewal and Rebirth: An Interview with Mark Charan Newton

Seven or so years ago, Mark Charan Newton was a name you needed to know. Now the author has another nom-de-plume: James Abbott. Abbott’s debut, The Never King, is slated for publication next May with Tor Books UK, and it demarcates a different direction for the man who reminded The Times of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe:

Xavir Argentum is the legendary former commander of an elite warrior cadre. But Xavir was framed for an atrocity during an epic battle and imprisoned for life, taking him out of the running for the crown itself. Then, while powerless to influence events, the kingdom he’d sworn to protect fell into the hands of a tyrant. It will be up to a few—a mixed bag of rogues and heroes—to right some great wrongs. But first, Xavir must make his escape…

I wanted to know what it was that led Newton to take on a pseudonym, whether we’ve heard the last of Lucan Drakenfeld, the hapless hero of his two most recent releases, and a whole host of other things—so I asked.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

An Uncanny Silence: Thin Air by Michelle Paver

It was on the back of the award-winning, six-part Chronicles of Ancient Darkness that Michelle Paver put out Dark Matter. A ghost story inspired by her lifelong love of the Arctic, it attracted flattering comparisons to the work of such giants of the genre as M. R. James and Susan Hill, and became, before long, a bona fide bestseller.

That the author has now turned her hand to another tale in the same vise-like vein can hardly be seen as surprising; what can is the fact that it’s taken her six years and another complete children’s series, namely the Gods and Warriors novels. But given the strength of Thin Air, a short, stirring and altogether masterful narrative set on the sheer slopes of the world’s third-highest hill, if it takes another decade for Paver to perfect its successor, that’s a decade I’ll be willing to wait.

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All Things Bright and Beautiful: The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood

In the beginning, a bang: a promising and potentially explosive prologue, or a scene that’s suggestive of all the fun to come. That’s a fine way for a story—especially a scary story—to start. But you’ve got to be smart. You don’t want to give yourself nowhere to go by starting the show with the showstopper, and I dare say that’s exactly what Alison Littlewood did with her debut.

Chilling and thrilling in equal measure, and at once creepy and weepy, A Cold Season was a hell of a hard act to follow, and although both Path of Needles and The Unquiet House were reasonably well received, nothing Littlewood has written since said has surpassed its macabre mastery. Certainly not last year’s tedious sequel. Happily, her newest novel rights almost every one of A Cold Silence‘s throng of wrongs. I’d go farther than that, in fact; I’d assert that The Hidden People is the aforementioned author’s most accomplished effort yet—if not necessarily her most accessible.

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If Loved, Then Love: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Life is a lot of things. It’s intense and it’s tedious; it’s exhausting as often as it’s exhilarating. Sometimes it’s kind of delightful; sometimes it’s quite, quite terrifying. “None of us have a rule book,” as Pepper puts it. “None of us know what we’re doing here.” But we each have our own ideas, don’t we? We all have our aspirations, our particular purposes. Some of us want to start families. Some of us want to make successes of ourselves. Some of us want to see the world. Some of us want to pave the way for change.

Insofar as she ever wanted anything, Lovelace—the AI formerly installed on the spaceship which went The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet in Becky Chambers’ radiant debut—Lovelace wanted to make the humans in her hull happy.

[That’s why she opted to be installed in a body kit…]

The Girl Who Fell to Earth: Dark Made Dawn by J. P. Smythe

The Girl Who Fell to Earth finds her feet in Dark Made Dawn, the vital concluding volume of the Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Australia Trilogy by J. P. Smythe.

It’s been a long road for Chan, who murdered her mother mere moments after we met her, crash-landed the prison ship she’d lived on her whole life a little later, and has had to do a whole host of other awful things simply to survive since—but her hellish journey is almost at an end. She’s been reunited with her former frenemy, Rex; they’ve found employment, of a sort, amongst the automatons of walled-off Washington; and the nearby nomads have offered them a home away from home. In short, Chan’s dreamed-of destination—a world in which she can be with Mae, come what may—is finally in sight, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t look bright!

[Then again, it’s always darkest before the dawn…]

Infinite Grimoire: A City Dreaming by Daniel Polansky

He gave grimdark fantasy a knee in the rear with the wickedly witty Low Town trilogy. He tackled epic fantasy to tremendous effect across Those Above and Those Below. Now, as he turns his attention to urban fantasy by way of his brilliantly bold new book, one wonders: can Daniel Polansky no wrong?

That remains to be seen, I suppose, but he’s certainly never done anything as resoundingly right as A City Dreaming. An assemblage of loosely-connected vignettes as opposed to a work of longform fiction—although it’s also that, at the last—A City Dreaming takes some getting into, but once you’re in, it’s a win-win. Hand on heart, I haven’t read anything like it in my life.

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Human After All: The Warren by Brian Evenson

Area X meets Duncan Jones’ first and finest movie Moon in a marvellously mystifying novella that wants to know what it means to be human in a world where people can be constructed like sculptures shaped from clay.

X is one such person; the last in a line of such people, even, although almost all of his predecessors, helpfully arranged alphabetically, persist within him. “X was the most recent, the closest to the surface; there was nobody beyond him. And yet he was folded in on himself, damaged.” Being more metaphysical than physiological, that damage is on display from word one of The Warren, which purports to be a record—though it is far from reliable—of X’s pitiable existence:

I am writing on paper because I have seen the way that sectors of the monitor and other recording devices can become corrupted and whole selves, as a result, are lost. I am trying to leave behind a record that will survive. Apparently, judging from the passages that I do not remember but which are nonetheless written, I am not the only part of me writing this.

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Message in a Bottle: Death’s End by Cixin Liu

The translation and publication of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body books has been a singular highlight of the science fiction scene in recent years. The Hugo Award-winning opening salvo of said saga took in physics, farming, philosophy and first contact, and that was just for starters. The world was wondrous, the science startling, and although the author’s choice of “a man named ‘humanity'” as that narrative’s central character led to a slight lack of life, The Three-Body Problem promised profundity.

A year later, The Dark Forest delivered. Bolstered by “a complex protagonist, an engrossing, high-stakes story and a truly transcendent setting, The Dark Forest [was] by every measure a better book” than The Three-Body Problem. Not only did it account for its predecessor’s every oversight, it also embiggened the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy brilliantly and explored a series of ideas that astonished even seasoned science fiction readers.

But “no banquet was eternal. Everything had an end. Everything.” And when something you care about does approach that point, all you can do is hope it ends well.

[Death’s End does.]

Journeyman: The Gradual by Christopher Priest

Pro tip, folks: never, ever, ever ask artists where they get their ideas from. It’s not a trade secret or anything so sensational—it’s just a silly question in the eyes of the aforementioned, and at best, silly questions beget silly answers, such as the bit about the Bognor Regis-based ideas dealer Neil Gaiman used to use. The fact of the matter is that art is inherently personal, and people, whatever their superficial similarities, are completely unique, so what inspires one person in one way isn’t likely to inspire another, and if it does, it’ll be differently.

That’s just one of the lessons the eventually-fêted composer Alesandro Sussken learns in The Gradual: a dreamlike diatribe on the source of song and scene and story and so on, arranged, somewhat like a literary symphony, around one man’s lifelong journey through the tides of time.

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Into the Empty: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Fresh off of finishing the magnificently ambitious Poseidon’s Children trilogy and collaborating with fellow science fiction superstar Stephen Baxter on the rather marvellous Medusa Chronicles, Alastair Reynolds returns with a stirring story about a pair of sisters who enlist on a spaceship and set about looting the rubble of a ruined universe. Featuring dollops of derring-do and not a few space battles too, Revenger might be Reynold’s most accessible solo effort yet, but there’s no dearth of darkness in this light-looking bite of a book.

The universe has seen better days, I dare say. Aeons on from the forging, so many civilisations have risen and fallen that the current population of the Congregation live every day as if it’s apt to be their last. Piracy is inevitably prevalent, but rather than stealing from one another, most pirates plunder the remnants of ancient races from the hundreds of thousands of dead worlds distributed in the distance.

[Most pirates, but not all…]

Return to the First of All Worlds: New Editions of The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay

With the publication of Children of Earth and Sky earlier this year—reviewed right here—Hodder & Stoughton did, I think, a damn fine job of welcoming Guy Gavriel Kay to the tremendous list of talent it’s been building behind the scenes. Now, not six months since, it’s doubling down on the World Fantasy Award-winning author’s place in the speculative space with the release of new digital editions of his very earliest efforts—complete with lovely new covers that nevertheless “retain elements of the old” by the same artist who did the originals: a Mr. Martin Springett.

Together, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road chronicle the lives of five men and women who find themselves flung into the magical land of Fionavar, First of All Worlds.

[And that’s just the start…]

Series: British Fiction Focus

A Family Affair: Spellbreaker by Blake Charlton

Although it was a small novel, both in size and in scope, Spellwright made a sizeable splash in the speculative fiction scene when it was released six years or so ago. First-time author Blake Charlton brought his own experiences as “a proud dyslexic” to bear brilliantly by exploring the place of a young man who misspells everything in a world in which magic is literally written.

Spellbound was bigger than Spellwright in the same several senses. It expanded the overarching narrative from the magical academy where Nicodemus Weal came of age and learned of something called the Disjunction to take in a distant city and a second central character. Again like the author, a medical school student by day and a writer by night at the time, Francesca DeVega was a physician poised to use her powers to heal the needy, but when she too became aware of the coming catastrophe, she had to put her pursuits on the back-burner to help Nico defeat the demons—demons that meant to destroy the lifeblood of the living: language.

But the demons were not defeated by our heroes… only delayed. And now, in Spellbreaker—not the longest volume of Charlton’s inventive trilogy but unequivocally the most ambitious—the Disjunction is at last at hand.

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