K. J. Parker, the prolific pseudonym of British comic novelist Tom Holt, is one of the most enjoyable fantasists working today, provided you have a taste for the sardonic, a dislike for the sentimental, and an unhealthy skepticism about human nature. His latest novel, Saevus Corax Deals with the Dead, may not be his most ambitious, but it offers substantial entertainment.
Once upon a time, Michael Moorcock “could write a trilogy in a couple of weeks and still have time off for picnics.” Completing three books in three weeks is a feat that few writers could manage or would attempt, but what staggers the imagination is that they ranged from good to fantastic. Many of his 1960s and 1970s works remain in print today, and I expect them to be read as long as fantasy has readers. These days, Moorcock has slowed down a bit: Eight years have passed since he published The Whispering Swarm, the first volume of an autobiographical fantasy trilogy, The Sanctuary of the White Friars, which sees Michael Moorcock building a career, establishing and then disestablishing a family, and writing dozens of books while also going on swashbuckling adventures with highwaymen and musketeers drawn from other worlds.
Sue Burke has a gift for topicality. In 2021, she published Immunity Index, a near-future story of a pandemic. In 2023, as AI thinkpieces proliferate like weeds, as developers make apocalyptic pronouncements, and media companies promise, or threaten, that AI will replace human writers, she publishes Dual Memory, a novel about a self-aware machine. But since mere topicality and relevance don’t a good novel make, it’s a pleasure to report that Dual Memory is a smart, surprising, and original book that should last far beyond the current news cycle.
The conventional wisdom is that Jonathan Carroll is a writer’s writer. That means that other writers heap praises on him, publishers don’t know what to do with his books, and too few readers discover him. His latest novel, Mr. Breakfast, was published in Poland way back in January 2019; it’s only now receiving publication in its author’s home country and in his first language. That four-year delay seems ominous: Can a book that went so long unpublished be worth the wait?
I’m glad to report that it’s another winner from one of our best fabulists.
Michael Moorcock has been writing Elric stories longer than most of his readers have been alive. He began the series before “fantasy” was an acknowledged genre and continues it in the era of Game of Thrones.
The first Elric of Melniboné story, “The Dreaming City,” debuted in the June 1961 edition of the British magazine Science Fantasy. Its author was just twenty-one years old. “The Dreaming City” was both an exemplar of the sword-and-sorcery tale and a subversion of the genre. Dragons soared, swords clashed, and empires fell, but Elric was anything but the typical hero. Cynical, sickly, ironic, and embittered, the albino “prince of ruins” devastated his home, caused the deaths of his allies, and, with his soul-devouring hellblade Stormbringer, slew the woman he’d begun a revolution to save.
In John Crowley’s 1981 masterpiece Little, Big, young Auberon Drinkwater daydreams of writing about Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. His work would feature “Saracens and papal armies, Sicilian guerrillas and potent palaces and princesses too,” but its secret purpose was to contemplate the emperor before his final battle. To Auberon, this “figure seen in a moment of repose snatched between two desperate actions, exhausted after victory or defeat, hard clothes stained with war and wear,” is an object of fascination. Neither Auberon Drinkwater nor his creator John Crowley ever wrote a Barbarossa play, but Crowley’s new novel, Flint and Mirror, evokes the feelings that Auberon dreamt about.
Flint and Mirror recounts the life of Hugh O’Neill, a sixteenth-century Irish earl forever torn between his native land and the English colonizers. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is drawn from history. Like almost all characters in this novel, he is obscure to contemporary Americans. In Ireland, paintings and statues commemorate him; in the United States, his name adorns a few pubs. To summarize: Hugh O’Neill was an Irish lord who, by dint of ambition, family name, political maneuvering, and statecraft, had a chance of uniting Ireland against its English administrators. Though he spent much of his youth in the English court, O’Neill eventually led a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth’s colonial forces; he won some battles, lost others, and eventually surrendered to the English. He was pardoned, but in 1607, he fled Ireland for Rome.
There are books that you never want to end, and John M. Ford’s novel Aspects is one of them. And Aspects does not, in fact, end: It stops, two pages into a chapter, forever abridged by the author’s untimely death in 2006. Always a critical favorite but rarely if ever a bestseller, Ford had many friends and more admirers; they’ve likely already picked up this final novel. But if you haven’t read Ford, or even heard of him? Should you attempt its five hundred unfinished pages? My answer is an emphatic “yes.”
After many years out of print, John M. Ford needs a re-introduction. Neil Gaiman, who has not needed introduction for twenty-odd years, provides it. In a touching foreword, Gaiman offers a portrait of Ford as steadfast friend and humble genius. He also explains the farcical communication breakdown between Ford’s estate and Ford’s literary agent that delayed this book’s publication for more than a decade. Gaiman’s introduction promises wonders; the reader turns the page and discovers that Ford’s book delivers them.
Harold R. Johnson is a difficult writer to classify and, therefore, an interesting writer to read. On his Twitter bio, he labels himself “trapper, fisherman, writer, father, grandfather, husband, lawyer, dog musher, farrier, lumberjack, prospector, Uncle, friend, heavy equipment operator, paddler.” The books he’s written are just as varied and unpredictable. His polemic Firewater draws from his experience as a Canadian Crown Prosecutor to address the scourge of alcoholism, while Cry Wolf matches Indigenous traditions with forensic science in an investigation of a fatal wolf attack in Saskatchewan. His novel The Cast Stone has the United States conquering Canada and facing resistance, while his later Corvus is a dystopian novel set in a future Canada struggling to accommodate catastrophic climate change.
Some themes and motifs recur—the meeting of First Nations and European cultures, the resilience of Cree culture, stewardship of and care for the environment—how these themes will materialize from one book to the next is impossible to predict. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Johnson has now written a fantasy novel of sorts.
Anthony Doerr’s new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, has arrived at last, preceded by every form of publicity and marketing that a Big Five publisher can bring to bear. As befits the first novel in a half a dozen years from a critically acclaimed and bestselling writer, there are full-page newspaper ads, website banners, in-store posters and displays, flyers slipped into Barnes & Noble packages, and announcements from Bookshop.org. And of course there’s a book tour. Doerr’s novel deserves all the attention and acclaim, and yet it’s somewhat strange to see the promotional campaign after reading this novel, because Cloud Cuckoo Land is a book about the transformative effect of a forgotten book.
In the title story of Jeffrey Ford’s new collection Big Dark Hole, a young boy crawls into a sewer pipe and never emerges. The narrator, who witnessed David Gorman’s fateful act, reflects forty years on: “In another five years or so, what’s left of the story will have completely decomposed, fizzed away, fallen back into a big dark hole.” Perhaps that oblivion is the fate of all stories, tales, and memories, but Ford’s stories will linger longer than most. They may not scare or shock, but they rarely fail to disquiet.
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” So runs one of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. Judging from his novel Hollow, Brian Catling, who made Blake a character in his earlier Vorrh Trilogy, seems to have taken the poet’s infernal proverb to heart. He has followed Blake’s path as far as it goes: Everything about this novel is excessive, sometimes ludicrously so, but it achieves an ungainly beauty and a crooked wisdom.
Brian Catling, stylized “B. Catling” on his book covers, first came to genre readers’ attention when Alan Moore wrote an introduction to The Vorrh, which he labeled a “landmark work of fantasy.” Two further novels concluded the story begun in The Vorrh. Hollow is the first Catling novel to receive wide U.S. distribution since the trilogy’s concluding volume.
If the novel’s composition matched the author’s conception, Courttia Newland’s A River Called Time would constitute a major accomplishment in speculative fiction. Newland creates a radically different Earth, devises a complex world-beyond-the-world of astral projection, and then, in the novel’s second half, sends his overwhelmed protagonist on an odyssey into further worlds.
The Absolute Book arrives in the United States more than a year after its initial publication with New Zealand’s Victoria University Press. Although Elizabeth Knox’s books have always been critically acclaimed, most of her titles have never escaped the Antipodes. Happily for American readers, a rave review by Dan Kois, a Slate critic briefly resident in New Zealand inspired a bidding war for U.S. rights, and now any American can open The Absolute Book. As someone who has been looking forward to it since the Slate review, I’m happy to report that the novel was worth the wait.
I hadn’t expected to see a new Edward Carey novel for a few years yet, but here is The Swallowed Man, just two years after the publication of Little, his big book about the waning and waxing of Madame Tussaud’s fortunes in the French Revolution. That massive novel took fifteen years to write; to receive another book so soon is a pleasant surprise. Little was an epic about the obscure story behind a familiar name; The Swallowed Man, in contrast, is a compact retelling of a familiar story from an obscure perspective.
The Matter of Britain, the cycle of stories relating to King Arthur and his knights, is as capacious a set of legends as the world possesses, and so the tales have received a staggering range of interpretations. From Tennyson’s pious odes to Victorian Britain, through Mark Twain’s declaration of Yankee independence, from Wagner’s promotion of the German volk and Edwar Burne-Jones’s self-consciously old-fashioned paintings to T.H. White’s tragicomic elegies, King Arthur has accommodated every vision or concern that artists have attached to him. Perhaps each era gets the Arthur it requires.
Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone gives us an Arthur for the Brexit era: A tyrant in lieu of a king, brute violence in lieu of gallant feats, undisguised venality in lieu of chivalric ideals. This is the Matter of Britain become the Matter with Britain.
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