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Niall Alexander

Witness Statement: Release by Patrick Ness

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don’t mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I’m talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can’t have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days don’t destroy us, because we’re reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow’s another day, we tell ourselves. It’s not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness’ ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It’s a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

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A Game of And: The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente

Having brought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making all the way home with the fabulous final volume of said series last year, Catherynne M. Valente is back with another magical middle-grade fantasy primed to delight younger and older readers alike.

The Glass Town Game takes its name from what is initially a bit of whimsy: a make-believe battle between twelve toy soldiers and whatever creeping evil its creative wee heroes conceive. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne are all itty bitty Brontës, but together, if you please, you can call them the Bees. And when the Bees wish to escape the weight of the world—a world in which they’ve already lost their beloved mother and two of their sisters who got sick at School—they take to the room at the top of the stairs of their upstanding father’s parsonage:

It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa’s room and Aunt Elizabeth’s. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week.

At play, the Bees are at least at peace, but when The Glass Town Game begins, the Beastliest Day—the day when Charlotte and Emily are to be sent away—is almost upon them.

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No Thinking Thing: Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

C. Robert Cargill’s first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn’t in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has “a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal” as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:

The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mile stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It’s a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It’s all just a wasteland now.

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Hot Potato: Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

What do you do when you’ve burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you’re Duke, an unusually moral lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:

“What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now.”

“You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?”

She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. “Oh, I have something better than that.”

And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City’s spaceport. “The words […] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle’s problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer’s afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm.” But looks, as Dave Hutchinson’s twisty new novella Acadie takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

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The War of the Worlds as Alternate History: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one, but still, in The War of the Worlds, they came: they came, in aluminium cylinders the size of ships; they conquered, with their towering tripods and hellish heat rays; and then, believe it or not, they were beaten—by bacteria!

So the story goes. But the story’s not over—not now that the estate of H. G. Wells has authorised a superb sequel by science fiction stalwart Stephen Baxter which, while overlong, turns the terrific tale Wells told in his time into the foundation of something greater.

The Massacre of Mankind takes place a decade and change since the aliens’ initial invasion, and though the Martians may have been beaten, it would be foolishness in the first to conclude that they’re completely defeated. As Baxter has it, all we did was knock out the scouts. And it seems that those scouts served their purpose perfectly, because when the bad guys come back, they come back bigger, and better. Add to that the fact that they’ve adapted; I dare say no mere microbe is going to be their undoing on this day.

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Till the World Burns: The Stone Sky by N. K. Jemisin

Sometimes you only see how special something is when you look back at it later. Sometimes that something needs a hot second to properly settle into your subconscious. And that’s fine, I figure. I’d go so far as to say that, for me at least, be it because the job requires me to read rather a lot or not, it’s surprising to be struck by something straightaway. But even I didn’t need the benefit of retrospect to bring home how brilliant the Hugo Award-winning beginning of The Broken Earth was. I realised I was reading something remarkable—something “rich, relevant and resonant,” as I wrote in my review of The Fifth Season—before I’d seen the back of the first act, and when the full measure of the power of its perspectives was made plain, it became a comprehensive confirmation of N. K. Jemisin as one of our very finest fantasists.

I stand by that, looking back—as I stand by my criticisms of its “surprisingly circumspect” successor. I said then that The Obelisk Gate sacrificed some The Fifth Season’s substance and sense of momentum to tell a slighter and slower story, and I’ll say that again today, never mind the passage of time or the news that it, too, just took home a Hugo. With The Stone Sky now behind me, however, and The Broken Sky closed, I do recognise that The Obelisk Gate played a pivotal role in the whole. It was the calm before the storm.

[And the storm The Stone Sky chronicles is one like none other.]

Colson Whitehead Is the Winner of the 2017 Arthur C. Clarke Award

This evening, at a special ceremony held at Foyles’ flagship bookshop on Charing Cross Road in lovely London, the winner of the 31st annual Arthur C. Clarke Award was announced. A suitably celebratory spread of genre readers, writers and industry figures were in attendance as the UK’s most prestigious prize for science fiction literature was awarded to Colson Whitehead for his “intensely moving” novel The Underground Railroad.

Andrew M. Butler, chair of a panel of judges that included representatives of the British Science Fiction Association, the Science Fiction Foundation and the SCI-FI LONDON Film Festival, expressed delight at the decision, describing Whitehead’s sixth novel—which concerns a pair of slaves fighting for their freedom along the length of a subterranean railway—as “a gripping account both of humanity’s inhumanity and the potential for resistance, underpinned by science fiction’s ability to make metaphor literal.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

More Than the Sum: Check out the UK Edition of Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin

When Sarah Maria Griffin moved to America in 2012, she found herself dealing with feelings that must be familiar to many emigrants. “Floundering, facing unemployment and missing her hometown of Dublin,” she decided to write her way through those dark days. That’s how her quarter-life memoir, Not Lost: A Story About Leaving Home, happened, and Griffin acknowledges that her first novel proper deals with some of the same themes:

It’s a story about alienation and anxiety, and how that can drive a person to create—against all odds. It’s also about technology and religion, and where those things meet and divide. It took until after it was finished to realise that ultimately it’s a book about making something in order to feel less alone in the world, which is far from what it started out as.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Alienated: The Rift by Nina Allan

Around the middle of The Rift, a sister who insists that her traumatic twenty-year disappearance came about because she woke up in another world says, by way of explaining why she now shelves her novels in with her non-fiction, that “no book is completely true or completely a lie. A famous philosopher at the Lyceum once said that the written word has a closer relationship to memory than the literal truth, that all truths are questionable, even the larger ones. Anyway, it’s more interesting. When you shelve books alphabetically you stop noticing them, don’t you find?”

I may be too time-poor to even contemplate such an almighty organisational endeavour, and yet… I’m tempted, because there’s some truth to Julie’s attitude, I’m sure. Once something becomes known, you do stop noticing it—and there’s so much in the world that needs noticing, so much that in a sense deserves the extra attention. Not least Nina Allan’s new novel, which, like her last—namely The Race, a story of stories about the lives of ordinary people becoming unfastened from reality—mixes the real with the unreal to tell a uniquely human tale, albeit one that may contain aliens.

[Then again, it may not.]

Dear God, Who Aren’t in Heaven: The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt

The easily-offended will be offended easily by Tom Holt’s new novel, a madcap Miracle on 34th Street in which religion in particular gets a ribbing, but readers with less delicate sensibilities should be ready to romp, because The Management Style of the Supreme Beings is a whole bunch of fun from word one. And it’s more than a simple send-up: it also stands as a sublimely ridiculous examination of morality in the modern era.

God, the thing begins, is getting on. “Fact is […] I feel old,” He says to his dearly beloved son as they fish for the same Sinderaan species that “had split the atom and proved the existence of the Higgs boson when Earth was still entirely inhabited by plankton.” An age or an instant later, as the five-dimensional fish nibble and divine drinks are sipped, the Big Guy admits that He thinks it might be time to step aside—as manager of the planet, naturally.

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She’s Electric: Naomi Alderman Wins the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

When, two hundred thousand words into what was to be her next novel, English author Naomi Alderman decided to ditch her current work in progress to focus, instead, on a feminist science fiction story about a world in which women can electrocute men just by laying their hands on them, she couldn’t have had a clue just what that book would do.

But that book just became the first work of speculative fiction to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Published in the UK late last year by Penguin, The Power is—in the words of this year’s Chair of Judges, Tessa Ross—a “brilliantly imagined dystopia” whose “big ideas” the four judges under her jurisdiction just kept coming back to, despite a hotly-contested shortlist.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.

Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place.

Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn’t ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because “Rotherweird don’t do cars,” as his toothless chauffeur tells him—”an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums,” and driven by a laughably affable madman.

[Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems?]

Out of the Darkness: Revealing After the Fire by Will Hill

Will Hill has a new novel!

Who knew?

I didn’t, till he finally talked about it on his “badly neglected” blog. But it’s a thing—a thing you can, and probably should, read RIGHT NOW.

Will Hill, in case you weren’t aware, is the author of the Department 19 novels: a series about a sixteen year old and a secret organisation that defends against supernatural terrorism which I know sounds silly and maybe even a little derivative, but as Blacklight’s newest recruit Jamie Carpenter learned early on in the novels, appearances can be deeply deceiving. These were books that broke the mold; books that thrilled and chilled at the same time as touching on truths so personal and so powerful that they won me and many others over.

But Department 19 is dusted and done, as of humanity’s last stand in Darkest Night, and After the Fire is just now begun. “It’s something entirely new, and very different, for me at least,” Hill has it. “It’s a standalone YA novel, and (I think) it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Dial H for Hitchcock: Revealing The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts

“A near-future conspiracy thriller told with […] trademark wit and intelligence,” Adam Roberts’ next novel is almost upon us. “Inspired by a scene Alfred Hitchcock wanted to film for North by Northwest but couldn’t manage,” The Real-Town Murders revolves around a disenfranchised private eye called Alma:

Alma is a private detective in a near-future England, a country desperately trying to tempt people away from the delights of Shine, the immersive successor to the internet. She is one of the few who doesn’t use it, but most people are happy to spend their lives plugged in, and the country, as a consequence, is crumbling.

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Series: British Fiction Focus

Cultural Exchange: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

“If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden,” muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying my copy of Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.

Compared to the twenty-four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami’s legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a planter of caveats.

That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.

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