British Fiction Focus

We Have A Winner

Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus,’s regular roundup of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.

This week, we begin with a winner. After much discussion and endless speculation, the judges of the 2013 Man Booker Prize announced that the year’s best book written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland was—wait for it!—The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. “From this rich field of literary wheat hers is the one head that remains standing, waving in the warm breeze of the judges’ favour. Life for Eleanor Catton will never be the same again.” But for better or for worse?

I’ve got news, too, about a bunch of new genre novels from Hodder, and in Cover Art Corner, a look at Rjurik Davidson’s debut, plus Nick Harkaway does the Doctor.

Long Live The Luminaries


Talk about terrible timing. After putting off the break I’d been meaning to take all through the months of summer, the week I finally do go away, they go and announce the winner of the Booker—which I need not note we’ve talked a bunch in the British Genre Fiction Focus. And what a winner it was! At age 28, Eleanor Catton is “the youngest Man Booker winner in the prize’s history,” whilst The Luminaries is “the longest ever Man Booker winning novel” at 832 pages.

In a year that has delivered thematic variety in both the longlist and the shortlist, that has encompassed first time novelists and old hands, that has highlighted writers from around the globe (Zimbabwe, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Anglo-America, England), the judges picked Catton’s audacious take on an old form, the Victorian “sensation novel.” She has channelled Wilkie Collins and Herman Melville and come up with something quite new.

The Luminaries, set in 1866 during the New Zealand gold rush, contains a group of 12 men gathered for a meeting in a hotel and a traveller who stumbles into their midst; the story involves a missing rich man, a dead hermit, a huge sum in gold, and a beaten-up whore. There are sex and séances, opium and lawsuits in the mystery too. The multiple voices take turns to tell their own stories and gradually what happened in the small town of Hokitika on New Zealand’s South Island is revealed.

The chair of judges Robert Macfarlane described the book as a “dazzling work, luminous, vast.” It is, he said, “a book you sometimes feel lost in, fearing it to be ’a big baggy monster’, but it turns out to be as tightly structured as an orrery.” Each of its 12 chapters halves in length which gives the narrative a sense of acceleration. It is not, however, an extended exercise in literary form. Macfarlane and his fellow judges were impressed by Catton’s technique but it was her “extraordinarily gripping” narrative that enthralled them. “We read it three times and each time we dug into it the yields were extraordinary, its dividends astronomical.” The Luminaries is, said Macfarlane, a novel with heart. “The characters are in New Zealand to make and to gain—the one thing that disrupts them is love.”

Granta has been busy reprinting The Luminaries ever since: some 75,000 copies have been released to the home market alone since the evening of the award, and more are expected in the imminent, the better to bask in this fever pitch of interest before it dwindles.

In other news, the bookies must be feeling a bit stupid. Not only did Jim Crace’s supposed swan song Harvest fail to win, as they’d predicted, it didn’t even see much of an uptick in sales after the announcement of the six shortlisted novels in September. Per an article in The Bookseller, published previous to the prizegiving:

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Viking) has proved the most popular of the Man Booker Prize’s shortlisted titles since the shortlist announcement in September.

The novel has sold 8,300 copies since the shortlist reveal, well ahead of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (Canongate) at 4,990 copies; Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (Bloomsbury) at 3,010; and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta) at 2,970. Bookies’ favourite Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador) has sold 2,490 copies since his book was shortlisted, and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Chatto) has sold 1,720 units.

Altogether, the six shortlisted books have sold 23,500 copies since the announcement, down 30% year on year from last year’s shortlist.

Rory Hill, a bookseller at Norwich’s The Book Hive, said: “We have all the shortlisted books out but we haven’t seen them sell like last year’s, when people were buying the whole list—some have only sold a couple of copies.” He added: “The one with the most interest [for our customers] has been Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I think if that won it would have a lot of impact, and could do very well.”

One can only hope it does. I finally bought a copy. Any of you taken the leap too?

So what does this sudden success mean for the author? Well, good things, I’m sure—not least the proceeds of a £50,000 prize-pot. But a whole lot of expectations and potentially regrets as well. As Nicholas Lezard put it in an article for The Guardian.

In 1956 Samuel Beckett, then 50 years old, wrote to his American publisher about how he viewed his newfound fame, as Waiting for Godot suddenly gave him an audience that had hitherto been ignoring him for decades. “Success and failure on the public level never mattered much to me. In fact, I feel more at home with the latter, having breathed deep of its vivifying air all my writing life up to the last couple of years.”

That’s always been one of my favourite quotations: it advances the idea that success is somehow not good for one, and that failure is bracing and healthy for the soul. So we sympathise deeply with the unfortunate Eleanor Catton, who at 28 has become the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker prize. What is more, she did it with an 800-plus-page book. I am fairly sure there are plenty of people who, by the age of 28, have not read 800 pages, let alone written them.

To wit, perhaps we should “heap pity upon the likes of poor Eleanor Catton, who is going to have to spend the rest of her life with a major achievement behind her.” Or perhaps we should celebrate the early accomplishment of an author who might have gone, if not unnoticed then near enough thus were it not for this record-breaking success.

Cover Art Corner: Harkaway Unwrapped

Rjurik Davidson Unwrapped Sky

Two treats for you to feast your eyes on in this week’s Cover Art Corner. First and foremost, methinks, is the chilly but brilliant cover of Unwrapped Sky, the full-length debut of the Ditmar award-winning author Rjurik Davidson. It’s been described as “a fantastic exploration of a society on the verge of collapse seen through the varying perspectives of three very different characters,” and the new synopsis sells it well:

A hundred years ago, the Minotaurs saved Caeli-Amur from conquest. Now, three very different people may hold the keys to the city’s survival.

Once, it is said, gods used magic to create reality, with powers that defied explanation. But the magic—or science, if one believes those who try to master the dangers of thaumaturgy—now seems more like a dream.

Industrial workers for House Technis, farmers for House Arbor and fisher folk of House Marin eke out a living and hope for a better future. But the philosopher-assassin Kata plots a betrayal that will cost the lives of godlike Minotaurs; the ambitious bureaucrat Boris Autec rises through the ranks as his private life turns to ashes; and the idealistic seditionist Maximilan hatches a mad plot to unlock the fabled secrets of the Great Library of Caeli Enas, drowned in the fabled city at the bottom of the sea, its strangeness visible from the skies above.

In a novel of startling originality and riveting suspense, these three people, reflecting all the hopes and dreams of the ancient city, risk everything tor a future that they can only create by throwing off the shackles of tradition and superstition, as their destinies collide at ground zero of a conflagration that will transform the ancient city… or destroy it.

Acquired by Editorial Director Julie Crisp for Tor UK, who plan to publish it next April, Unwrapped Sky is the first of two books by the debut Aussie author, and you can bet your last penny I’ll read it when the time is right.

Keeping Up with the Joneses Doctor Who Nick Harkaway

I’m rather less certain that I’ll read Keeping up with the Joneses, the new Doctor Who novel by none other than Angelmaker author Nick Harkaway, whose reaction to the announcement was most muted: “SQUEEEEEEE,” he wrote. “I cannot tell you. My name. On a thing. With the TARDIS. Oh, hell yeah.”

I’m sure I’ve said before that I’ll make time for anything with Nick Harkaway’s name on it, but I’ll be honest: I hadn’t necessarily expected him to write a Doctor Who novella. As one of those weirdoes who doesn’t adore the Doctor, I’m not sure what to make of Keeping up with the Joneses, however I can only imagine how happy fans of the longstanding series will be to hear of it.

Here’s a very brief blurb:

Deep in the gap between the stars, the TARDIS is damaged by a temporal mine. It’s not life-threatening, but the Tenth Doctor will need a while to repair the damage. But he’s not alone. The strangely familiar-looking Christina thinks the Doctor has arrived in her bed and breakfast, somewhere in Wales. In fact, the TARDIS seems to have enveloped Christina’s entire town—and something else is trapped inside with it. A violent, unnatural storm threatens them all and—unless it’s stopped—the entire universe.

Keeping up with the Jonesesis coming out as a cheap ebook in early February from BBC Digital in Britain and beyond.

The Hodder Ahead


Working with the fine folks at Hodder & Stoughton has been a pleasure of mine, albeit an occasional one, ever since I started out in this business. Alas, aside a few books by A-list authors like Stephen King and John Connolly, the publisher’s speculative offerings have historically been a little thin on the ground. Of late, though, that’s changed. Why? In large part because of Anne C. Perry.

Ever since the publisher brought her on board as an Assistant Editor in mid-2012, things have been looking up for genre fiction fans. She’s already shepherded a number of awesome novels to our bookshelves—not least The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, released tomorrow and reviewed (by me) right here—and the future looks good and full too.

In just the past few months the co-founder of the awesome British Fantasy Award-nominated blog Pornokitsch has acquired four new authors for Hodder, for a grand total of nine books and one ambitious digital serial, namely Nunslinger: a twelve-part Western for the twenty-first century by someone called Stark Holborn—apparently “a peculiar character with a six-gallon hat and a past shrouded in mystery”—which will begin on Boxing Day and continue through 2014.

In addition to this, Perry has also acquired a YA trilogy by School’s Out Forever author Scott K. Andrews:

New York City, 2141: eighteen-year-old Yojana Patel throws herself off a skyscraper, but never hits the ground. Cornwall, 1640: fourteen-year-old Dora Predennick, newly come to Sweetclover Hall to work, discovers a badly-burnt woman at the bottom of a flight of stairs. When she reaches out to comfort the dying woman, she’s knocked unconscious, only to wake, centuries later, in empty laboratory.

On a rainy night in present-day Cornwall, seventeen-year-old Kaz Cecka sneaks into the long-abandoned Sweetclover Hall, determined to secure a dry place to sleep. Instead he finds a frightened housemaid who believes Charles I is king and an angry girl who claims to come from the future. Thrust into the centre of an adventure that spans millennia, Dora, Kaz and Jana must learn to harness powers they barely understand to escape not only villainous Lord Sweetclover but the forces of a fanatical army… all the while staying one step ahead of a mysterious woman known only as Quil.

The TimeBomb trilogy kicks off next June, and the month after that—July to you and I—Hodder will launch the first volume of “a staggering new fantasy series […] in the vein of George R. R. Martin, Peter V. Brett, and Robin Hobb” called The Hollow Gods. It’s by Rebecca Levine, and here’s a bit about it:

Long ago, the sun and the moon fought a terrible battle. The moon’s servants were driven mand and fled underground, where they remain, lurking in the shadows and the dark places, to prey on those who walk upon the earth. Only sunlight can keep them at bay—anywhere left too long in darkness becomes a gateway between the world above and the horrors below.

Travelling along the byways of Ashanesland is Smiler’s Fair, the great wandering city where anything can be had for a price. It’s here that the lives of a fallen warrior, a frightened princess, a lovelorn rent boy, a bloodthirsty rogue and a humble goatherd cross. In a world where no place is ever truly safe, these men and women will discover—and deny—their destinies.

There’s oodles more to report, of course, but we’ve rather run out of room, so check out the Hodderscape blog for further information about the books above, and stay tuned for more news soon.

And with that, it’s time to say goodbye again. But be not afraid: the British Genre Fiction Focus will be back next week… just in time for Halloween and the kick-off of World Fantasy Con. Talk to you all again then!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and He’s been known to tweet, twoo.


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