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Niall Alexander

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

An Ambassador Between Man and Machine: The Medusa Chronicles by Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds

It was in 1971, in the pages of Playboy, in a Nebula Award winning novella which modern masters Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds cast as “perhaps [his] last significant work of short fiction,” (p.440) that Arthur C. Clarke introduced the world to Howard Falcon: a dirigible captain who would have died in the aftermath of his craft’s catastrophic crash if his remains hadn’t been grafted onto the mechanical contraption that would become his body.

Unfortunately for Falcon, there were those who thought a line was crossed by the surgeons that saved him, thus their experiments were not repeated in the proceeding years, stranding the cyborgised captain “midway between two orders of creation,” according to Clarke. In an attempt to escape this isolation, Falcon ventured forth to explore the solar system, becoming, before long, the first astronaut to explore the atmosphere of Jupiter, and meet with the immense Medusae there, as well as the waxy mantas that fed upon them.

He secured his place in the history books in the process—but, as Clarke concluded, Falcon’s role was far from over, for he would go on to be be “an ambassador […] between the creatures of carbon and the creatures of metal who must one day supersede them. Both would have need of him in the troubled centuries that lay ahead.”

[The Medusa Chronicles tells the story of those very centuries]

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.]