Tor.com content by

Niall Alexander

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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Too Human: The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell

In everything we do, every decision we make and every action we undertake, our identities define us… yet we never really know who we are. We know who we were—we tell ourselves we do, to be sure—but like all memories, these recollections lose their sharpness with time, and, invariably, some of their truth, too. And while we think we know who we will be, these are projections at best; messy guesses subject to sudden and surprising changes in circumstance.

Take Luke Arnold, the central perspective of The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. He thought he was the only son of Maurice and Freda Arnold, but as a DNA test taken on television demonstrates, he’s not; the hospital must have given the couple he calls mum and dad the wrong baby. “He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts.” Nevertheless, this sensational revelation alters Luke’s perception of his past, and that, in turn, has huge ramifications on his future.

Who, then, is the man caught in the middle?

[Not who—or what—you might imagine, actually…]

New Moon: The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

Middle volume syndrome sets in in the surprisingly circumspect sequel to one of the best and bravest books of 2015. Though the world remains remarkable, and the characters at the heart of the narrative are as rich and resonant as ever, The Obelisk Gate sacrifices The Fifth Season‘s substance and sense of momentum for a far slighter and slower story.

In the Stillness, a perpetually apocalyptic landscape which may or may not be our planet many generations hence, purpose is a pre-requisite. A use-caste, it’s called. There are strongbacks and breeders and cutters and hunters, to name just a few, all of whom are defined by what they do; by what they can contribute to the communities, or comms, that they call home.

This is a hard world, however, replete with hard people. Season after Season—of widespread death by choking, boiling and breathlessness among other, equally unpleasant ends—has seen to that, so no comm will carry you if you’re not prepared to pull your weight in some way. In the Stillness, there’s just no place for waste.

[No place for orogenes like our heroes, either.]

Me, Myself and I: The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

If Hunter S. Thompson had written a Blair Witch tie-in, it might have looked a little something like this. A gonzo ghost story that trades in unreliable narration and drug-fuelled devastation, The Last Days of Jack Sparks marks the original fiction debut of music journalist and now novelist Jason Arnopp, and has as its central character a man who made his name writing for the NME before properly letting loose in a few bestselling books.

That’s where the similarities between the author and the authored end, however. I have reason to believe that Jason Arnopp is a genuinely decent human being, whereas Jack Sparks is an egotistical twit who, for his first trick, travelled the length and breadth of Great Britain on a pogo stick, offending everyone he encountered equally. Since then, he’s gobbled up gang culture and gotten close to a couple of Class A chemical concoctions, with similarly repugnant results.

Now, for his new novel, he’s set his sights on a Halloween theme. Could ghosts really be real? Our intrepid reporter wants to know. So much so that Jack Sparks on the Supernatural will be his last book, because he died, quite violently, while writing it.

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Conventional Wisdom: I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Ahead of Ian McEwan’s literary nasty Nutshell, a fable of infidelity readers will only be able to experience from the perspective of a foetus, I Am Providence proffers a murder mystery narrated in no small part by the victim of that very vicious killing in the moments before his failing brain cracks and crumbles like “a sponge drying in the sun.”

Panos Panossian is an utterly insufferable author of Lovecraftian lore, so it’s either fitting or simply suspicious that he meets his maker on the first day of the annual Summer Tentacular. “Providence’s premiere literary conference about pulp-writer, racist, and weirdo Howard Phillips Lovecraft” features, funnily enough, “a veritable ‘Who’s That?’ of horror fiction,” including one Colleen Danzig. A newcomer to mythos mania with just a few short stories to her name, she was set to share a room with Panossian, but when the con goes on despite his death, Colleen decides to determine just whodunnit. After all, “if anything is possible, then yes, an untrained writer could find a murderer.”

Not just a murderer, but a mutilator too, because to add insult to injury, the killer, whoever he or she may be, purloined poor Panossian’s face in addition to his future.

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Romancing the Throne: Revealing Skullsworn by Brian Staveley

The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne is over, for the moment, but the world Brian Staveley created in the course of said series is the kind of gift that keeps on giving. You don’t have to take my word for it, folks—just see Skullsworn: a standalone prequel starring Pyrre, the priestess who played such a pivotal role in The Providence of Fire, as she returns to the city of her birth to earn her stripes as an assassin under the auspices of Ananshael.

Staveley himself revealed the unutterably lovely North American cover here on Tor.com a couple of months ago, but for its publication in the UK, designer Matthew Garrett was tasked with creating a look that would link back to the British editions of the aforementioned trilogy—all of which featured swords and borders—at the same time as suggesting Skullsworn was something new, something that could potentially be read by any and all interested parties as opposed to only those who’ve completed The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.

[What Garrett came up with ticks both of those boxes, I believe.]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Who Rides the Riders? The Race by Nina Allan

If I were to start this article by stating that The Race is the best debut of the year to date, I’d be telling the truth, to be sure, but I’d be lying to you, too—and that’s as apt a tack as any I could take to introduce a review of a book as deceptive and self-reflexive as said.

You see, it might be that I was more moved by Nina Allan’s first novel than by any other released in recent months—emotionally and, yes, intellectually—but The Race was not released in recent months, not really: NewCon Press published an earlier edition in 2014, which, even absent the substantial and supremely satisfying expansion Allan has added for Titan Books’ new and improved take two, went on to be nominated for the BSFA’s Best Novel Award, the John W. Campbell Memorial Prize and the Kitschies’ Red Tentacle. And although The Race is indeed Allan’s first novel proper, it is, in a sense, a cycle of stories that share subjects and settings, not unlike several of the aforementioned author’s earlier efforts, such as Stardust and The Silver Wind.

So it’s not really a debut and it wasn’t really released this year, which leaves just one of my first line’s “facts” unfudged. Happily, The Race actually is amazing, and if you haven’t read it already, don’t let this second chance pass you by.

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Rearranging Angels: Revealing The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

In the conclusion of my rave of a review, I spoke of The House of Shattered Wings as emblematic of an intelligence and an elegance as rare and precious as angel essence. It was, in a word, a wonder, and one I wanted more of.

My wish was Aliette de Bodard’s command, apparently, as Gollancz has unveiled book two of Dominion of the Fallen: it’s called The House of Binding Thorns, and it “continues the epic story of the fallout of the war in heaven that saw the angelic Great Houses of Paris assaulted and torn apart by mistrust and betrayal” in the winner of last year’s British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel. “Among the ruins of Paris, the Great Houses, shaken to their foundations, now struggle to put themselves back together, as powerful forces, gods and angels, men and demons, begin to circle”—attracted, perhaps, to the power vacuum left in the aftermath of that masterful narrative.

Gollancz didn’t have much more to say about The House of Binding Thorns today, I’m afraid, but I did a bit of digging on de Bodard’s blog this morning, and found the following…

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Endgame: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane

The great detective applies his inimitable intellect to a murder mystery like none other in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell, a surprisingly credible commingling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic characters and the soul-shredding subjects of The Scarlet Gospels. That’s right, readers: Clive Barker’s Cenobites are back—and they may actually have met their match.

Holmes himself has seen better days, I dare say. In the wake of the great hiatus, during which period he disappeared to mess with his nemesis, he’s alive and relatively well, but without the dastardly Moriarty to match wits with, he’s grown a bit bored. And as Dr Watson warns:

When Holmes grew bored, it was usually only a matter of time before he took up his old habit of drug use […] however his penchant for his seven-percent solution of cocaine, administered via a needle he kept locked away in a polished Morocco box, was the least of my concerns after he returned, it transpired.

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Bug Out: The Hatching by Ezekiel Boone

In recent years, apocalyptic fiction has gotten pretty political. Where once it was the preserve of the firmly fantastical or the nominally natural, like the rampaging rats of James Herbert’s unforgettable first novel, or Michael Crichton’s reconditioned dinosaurs, such stories have since taken a turn for the topical. Now we have nuclear winters to worry about, a cache of climate catastrophes, and the release of diseases genetically engineered to “solve” the planet’s overpopulation problems. For those of us who read to escape the devastation of the day-to-day, it’s all gotten uncomfortably current.

Happily, The Hatching hearkens back to the detached disasters of yesteryear. The end of the world as we know it isn’t even our own fault in Ezekiel Boone’s book—it comes about because of some damned spiders.

[Arachnophobes, avert your eyes!]

One Day at a Time: This Savage Song by V. E. Schwab

A girl who wants to be a monster and a monster who wants to be a boy learn that you can’t always get what you want in This Savage Song, a refreshingly unromantic urban fantasy bolstered by a brilliantly built background and a pair of expertly crafted characters more interested in making the best of their bad lots than in bumping uglies.

Though we’re given a gaggle of glimpses of the wasted world that surrounds it on all sides, the first volume of V. E. Schwab’s Monsters of Verity series takes place primarily in V-City, twelve years on from something called the Phenomenon: an apocalypse of sorts which means, for whatever reason, that monsters are born whenever humans do wrong.

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The Joy of the Journey: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Self-published in the wake of a successful Kickstarter campaign before being picked up by a traditional genre fiction imprint, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet makes its move into the mainstream this month: a real rollercoaster of a path to market I urge you to ride when it arrives.

Not for nothing did the Kitschies shortlist this progressive piece de resistance. Imagine smashing the groundbreaking, breathtaking science fiction of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch saga against the salty space opera of The Expanse; The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet lacks the wall-to-wall action of that latter, and some of the former’s finesse, yes—nevertheless, Becky Chambers’ debut is a delight.

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The British SFF Book Trade on Brexit

Last Thursday, more than thirty million British people turned out to answer a critical question about the UK’s future. “Should we remain a member of the European Union?” was what the government wanted to know, and although Scotland answered in the affirmative—as indeed did large parts of London and Northern Ireland—overall, the numbers said no.

This has already led to a number of potentially great changes, quite apart from the eventual consequences of Brexit itself. Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, a politician from the Conservative camp who campaigned to Remain, is soon to step down, the leader of the Labour party is under pressure to follow in his footsteps, and Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has said a second independence referendum is “highly likely.” In other words, the United Kingdom is united no more.

So where does that leave the British publishing industry and its literary luminaries? Let’s start the tally with the latter.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Suicide Song: End of Watch by Stephen King

The Bill Hodges trilogy that began with the Edgar Award-winning Mr Mercedes and continued in last year’s fearsome Finders Keepers comes to an uncharacteristically concise close in End of Watch, a finale which finds Stephen King’s determined old det-ret racing against the clock to get to the bottom of a string of suicides he thinks could be linked to the malignant mind behind the Mercedes Massacre:

On a foggy morning in 2009, a maniac named Brady Hartsfield drove a stolen Mercedes Benz into a crowd of job-seekers at City Center, downtown. He killed eight and seriously injured fifteen. […] Martine Stover had been the toughest [survivor] to talk to, and not only because her disfigured mouth made her all but impossible to understand for anyone except her mother. Stover was paralysed from the chest down.

The adjustment has been damned difficult, but in the seven years since the incident, Martine has come to terms with her limited mobility. She and her mother, who stepped up to the plate in the wake of that darkest of dates, have grown closer than ever before. They’ve been, by all accounts, happy—hard as that might for some outsiders to imagine—and happy people don’t force overdoses on their dearly beloved daughters then takes cannisters of gas into the bath, do they?

[Needless to say, something doesn’t add up…]

Rackamore’s Retribution: Revealing Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger

Has there ever been a better time to be an Alastair Reynolds reader?

Just yesterday I was singing the praises of The Medusa Chronicles, a surprisingly substantial and suitably excellent extension of Arthur C. Clarke’s last short story of note, which the former astrophysicist co-authored with fellow speculative superstar Stephen Baxter.

Fast forward a few weeks and fans of the fella are sure to have their hands full with Beyond the Aquila Rift, an appropriately immense collection of the best of Reynolds’ short fiction. Not long after that, we’ll learn whether or not Slow Bullets—which I called “an excellent effort from one of British science fiction’s finest” in my review last June—can beat out the likes of Binti and The Builders to take home a Hugo Award for Best Novella. And then, in September, Reynolds’ next novel proper will be upon us. It’s called Revenger, and it’s said to be “an epic story of adventure set in the rubble of a ruined universe.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus