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Niall Alexander

Make it Matter: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

I was of two minds when I learned that Robert Jackson Bennett would be making a return journey to the world and the wares he so successfully peddled in City of Stairs. On the one hand, he hardly scratched the surface of Saypur and the Continent it opted to occupy in that multiple award-nominated novel; on the other, I feared a sequel would bring to an end to the endless reinvention that has kept the aforementioned author’s efforts so incredibly fresh. And it does… until it doesn’t.

For all that City of Blades shares with City of Stairs, Bennett’s decision to bench book one’s embattled protagonist Shara Komayd in favour of General Turyin Mulaghesh sets the two texts apart from the start.

[Just when she thought she was out, the Prime Minister pulls her back in!]

Lost in Hollywood: Medusa’s Web by Tim Powers

Damn near a decade since his last standalone, two-time Philip K. Dick Award winner Tim Powers paints a characteristically trippy picture of modern Hollywood in Medusa’s Web, a tense time-travel thriller about addiction and the fault lines that families straddle.

The far-from-happy family at the heart of this narrative are the Maddens, under ancient Aunt Amity—a half-mad matriarch and erstwhile author who owns the deteriorating estate where the bulk of Powers’ tale takes place:

Madeline had moved out of Caveat seven years ago, leaving her aunt with Ariel and Claimayne and the solitary writing of her endless unpublishable novels. Scott had left six years before that, to get married, though when that Louise woman left him he hadn’t moved back in.

Neither Madeline, an astrologer, nor Scott, an artist, had planned to come back to the moldering mansion they left so long ago, but Amity Madden’s explosive suicide necessitates a reassessment.

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Announcing the Winners of the 2015 Costa Book Awards

Not even a week into 2016, the announcement of the category winners of the 2015 Costa Book Awards has set the scene for what already seems a markedly more appealing awards season than last year’s.

“The only major UK book prize […] open solely to authors resident in the UK and Ireland” picked “the most enjoyable books” published in 2015 from five categories, a fair few of which featured fiction of substantial speculative interest…

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Applied Kant: The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

At an Antarctic research station in the 1980s, two men at their end of their respective tethers, alone in this lovely if unlovable land but for one another and a copy of Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, see something that cannot conceivably be:

There was a hint of—I’m going to say, claws, jaws, a clamping something. A maw. Not a tentacle, nothing so defined. Nor was it a darkness. It made a low, thrumming, chiming noise, like a muffled bell sounding underground, ding-ding, ding-ding. But this was not a sound-wave sort of sound. This was not a propagating expanding sphere of agitated air particles. It was a pulse in the mind. It was a shudder of the soul.

Sound familiar? Well, it is—for a fraction of a chapter.

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Legends Emerge: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

As we close in on the conclusion of 2015, there’s been a lot of looking back, and I shouldn’t wonder if there was much more to come before it’s all over and done… but today, I want you folks to face forward.

Just a glimmer of a glance at what we’ll see in the first few months of 2016 gives every indication it’s going to be another good year for genre fiction. With the last volume of Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin novels in March, Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie out in April, The Fireman by Joe Hill in May, and all this bracketed by books by China Mieville—namely This Census-Taker in February and Last Days in Paris come the summer—I believe you’d be hard pressed to disagree. But amongst this embarrassment of potential fictional riches, the crown jewel, if you ask me, has to be Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s a novel we’ve known was coming for some time, but this week, Hodder gave us a good, long look at it.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Forever Autumn: Gollancz Announces Another War of the Worlds

The inestimable Simon Spanton might have moved on, but Gollancz still has a few tricks up its sleeve, it seems…

This morning, Orion’s genre fiction imprint was delighted to announce the acquisition of world rights to release The Massacre of Mankind—and it has every reason to be pleased: said text is “a sequel to one of the most famous and influential SF books ever,” namely The War of the Worlds by Herbert George Wells. You must be wondering, as I was when I received the press release, exactly who you tap to modernize such a prized property. The answer: Stephen Baxter.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Need a Ride? BITE by K. S. Merbeth

Back in the distant past, when Mad Max: Fury Road was still a big hit in cinemas, Orbit announced—not coincidentally, I think—that it had acquired “a dark debut” complete with “an amazing world” and a “strong female main character” sure to prove perfect for fans of George Miller’s movie.

The book in question was BITE by Kristyn S. Merbeth, “the stark and darkly comedic story of a young girl who joins a crew of bandits in a lawless, post-nuclear world,” and last week, its publisher showed it off properly.

[Cover art coming up!]

Series: British Fiction Focus

The End of an Era: Simon Spanton Departs Gollancz

Sad news, genre fiction fans: November 20, which is to say today, is Associate Publisher Simon Spanton’s last at Gollancz. It isn’t gilding the lily in the least to say that his departure—“by mutual agreement,” according to a statement supplied by the imprint’s parent—marks the end of an era. A truly epic one, to be sure.

His achievements in the nineteen years he’s been a part of the Orion Publishing Group are too numerous to list in any great detail here, but suffice it to say we have Spanton to thank, in large part, for some of the finest speculative fiction released since the turn of the century. If you’ve ever spent a spell sucking up Scott Lynch, or jonesing for Joe Abercrombie, or relaxing with Richard Morgan, know that though he’s “definitely more Arthur Dent than Takeshi Kovacs,” Spanton has been behind the scenes, helping to make the magic happen.

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Here Be Monsters: Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson

A great many maps were made in Europe in the Middle Ages. Foremost among them were the Mappae Mundi: “maps of the world” meant not as navigational aids but to illustrate different principles—the earth’s spherical shape, say, or its flora and fauna. Such scrolls represented repositories of medieval knowledge, but even the most definitive had their limits; here be lions and the like was oft-enscribed where the unknown roamed. The Ebstorfer Mappa Mundi, for instance, depicts a dragon to the east of Africa—also asps and basilisks, presumably because it was better to show something than nothing; better, according to that thought process, to invent the positively extraordinary than to admit the littlest deficiency.

In this day and age, we expect rather more from our maps than that. We demand that they are exact, in fact—detailed to the nearest nanometre, at least! And perhaps they are. But you know what? I hope to God not. If we’re to understand that modern maps are absolutely accurate, then there remains nothing about the world we do not know, and me… I love a bit of a mystery. Which might be why I loved Europe at Midnight.

[That and a hundred other reasons, even.]

Forget Me Not: Claire North’s Next

With the digital release this week of The Gameshouse novellas—that is to say The Serpent, The Thief and The Master, which “can be read separately but also fit together to make a complete, intricately woven tale”—the time has come to start talking about what’s next for Catherine Webb’s nom de plume Claire North.

Long story short: a lot, is what—beginning with the novel formerly known as Forget Me Not. Like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch before it, The Sudden Appearance of Hope—as it shall be known henceforth—is another interrogation of identity.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

At the End of the Tunnel: The Light That Gets Lost by Natasha Carthew

When you think about it, the business of living boils down to a string of decisions; seemingly insignificant decisions about little things, largely, like whether to take the left road or the right. Maybe one direction gets you to your destination without delay on this postulated day, and perhaps that matters, but taking the long way could lead, equally, to a chance meeting that leads to laughter that leads, at the last, to love.

What I mean to say is that, in a very real way, we’re changed by our choices—made or broken or both. Take Tremain Pearce, the deeply damaged protagonist of Natasha Carthew’s languid but ultimately uplifting latest. When a man murders his mother and father, and hurts his big brother Billy so seriously that he’ll require round-the-clock care for the remainder of his days, Trey chooses to make the guy who got away with it pay: a decision that determines the lot of his lamentable life from that sickening instant on.

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Death Becomes Him: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

“I never feel the limitations of my talent so keenly as I do when writing short fiction,” confesses Stephen King in the introduction to The Bazaar of Bad Dreams—an unusually introspective yet no less effective collection of eighteen variously terrifying tales, plus a few pieces of poetry, from the affable author of last year’s similarly reflective Revival.

This is far from the first time King has discussed his “struggle to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realisation of that idea’s potential,” and although, as readers, we only have the end product to parse, the ideas the Edgar Award winner explores here—and the characters, and the narratives—are not at all inadequate. If anything, in dispensing with the hallmarks of Halloweeny horror to which his bibliography is so bound in order to investigate a goody bag of markedly more grounded goings-on, the stories brought together in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams number among King’s most thoughtful and evocative.

[Which isn’t to say they ain’t scary…]

A New NME: The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

From the writer of Beast in the Basement, a decent number of Doctor Who audiobooks “and further tomfoolery” such as A Sincere Warning About the Entity in Your Home comes The Last Days of Jack Sparks: a “chilling and utterly immersive” account of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of the eponymous provocateur and pop culture critic.

To his fans, Jack was a fearless rebel; to his detractors he was a talentless hack. Either way, his death came as a shock to everyone. It was no secret that Jack had been researching the occult for his new book. He’d already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed in rural Italy.  Then there was that video: thirty-six seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.

Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed…

[…until now.]

Series: British Fiction Focus

Watching the World Burn: The Fireman by Joe Hill

In case you weren’t aware, there’s a new novel by Joe Hill on the horizon. It’s called The Fireman, and apparently it “marks a remarkable new direction for the bestselling author”—one Gollancz’s Gillian Redfearn is confident will take Hill’s already-astronomical career to new heights.

Said to be a synthesis of “the epic scope of The Passage and the emotional impact of The Road,” this apocalyptic thriller is “set in a world overtaken by an incurable runaway pathogen that causes death by spontaneous combustion.”

[No one is safe.]

Series: British Fiction Focus