Hot on the heels of the previous Book Review post which focused on Historical Fiction and Thrillers, it’s now time to turn my attention to the other half of my reading brain – the bit that adores Science Fiction. My top ten SF books are presented below. But this year my reading habits have become a little more flexible than they have been in the past. I am now less afraid of dabbling in Fantasy and Horror. So while I will never stop loving spaceships and aliens first and foremost, in 2014 some of my favourite reads came from less familiar worlds. As with the Historical Fiction, there are a couple of books here that I read right at the end of 2013 but reviewed in 2014.
I read plenty of science fiction from previous years during 2014 and those will feature in another post. Alastair Reynolds didn’t publish a novel this year but I spent a considerable part of 2014 immersed in his books. I also read several trilogies in their entirety and they’ll feature in that post, too.
The books below are presented in no particular order except for the final Science Fiction choice which was my favourite. It is also my joint favourite novel of the year alongside its Historical Fiction counterpart. I should mention that this was not an easy choice at all – there were a bunch of SF novels in contention for top choice. Click on the titles for the full reviews.
Ultima by Stephan Baxter, Gollancz
Proxima was my favourite novel of 2013. The wait for Ultima was long and impatient. I will be very cagey here because you do need to have read Ultima first and I certainly don’t want to spoil it so here are just a few thoughts on what Ultima meant to me.
In science fiction such as this I want to be awestruck with wonder and Stephen Baxter supplies this by the page once we’ve moved on from the first third. We are taken to new extraordinary habits, beautifully painted – I don’t want to say anything about these, you must experience it all yourself. Characters we knew little now come into their own and rival those we already cared for. The backstories these characters are given are strangely powerful as we encounter new ways of life based on twisted traditions. Time has moved on substantially since the days of Proxima but I loved where it takes us. There are so many little adventures, so big for those taking part, all forming a crucial part of a huge bigger picture that encompasses the meaning and future of the entire universe. These are big ideas, wonderfully wrought. A fabulous mix of large and small, universes and individual lives. The final third in particular is as superb as anything in Proxima.
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, Canongate
Pastor Peter Leigh has been selected to visit Oasis, a planet trillions of miles from Earth that is home to an alien species that hungers for the word of God and especially the love of Jesus. This is a fantastic opportunity for Peter, to become a missionary on a new frontier. But the cost is high. USIC, the mysterious company that has bought Cape Canaveral and finances space exploration to Oasis, has a stringent selection policy and there is a place for just Peter, not for his beloved wife Bea. Peter must cope with life on a new, very different world, with little more than his own faith to sustain him, learning to relate to his strange unearthly flock, while separated from his wife and soulmate. Left on Earth, Bea has more than enough trials to test her own faith. Earth is in decline, catastrophes increase. Bea’s letters grow more and more desolate. The separation between husband and wife becomes much more than physical as both Peter and Bea learn about the true nature of faith, communication, love and need.
Oasis is a breathtaking planet, not necessarily because it’s beautiful (although I think it is) but because of the way that Michel Faber describes it. Rarely has an author transported me to another world that is as fully realised as this one or populated by an alien species as sympathetic as this one. The descriptions of the rain, the mud, the insects, the sun and light and darkness, the Jesus Loving aliens, their homes and church – it is all created with such care and wonder. Earth is, as Peter reflects, more stunning with so much more to marvel at but Oasis is gorgeously different. It is alien and the wonder of that is evoked superbly through the beauty of Michel Faber’s prose.
The Book of Strange New Things may well be the novel that I’ve thought about most this year before I actually got round to reading it. Friends whose opinions I value didn’t like it at all while there were others who adored it. A marmite book by the sound of things. I had some concerns going in – I have a low tolerance for anything that feels ‘preachy’ or religious and I don’t get on too well with books about marriage break-ups. But there was a stronger voice in my head saying I must read it – the cover is stunning, my favourite of the year, tactile and gorgeous, and it’s about life on a colony on an alien world while the Earth that’s been left behind approaches its apocalypse. As far as I was concerned, this is irresistible. What I actually got from The Book of Strange New Things is much more than that. This book made me dream of it. Compelling, hypnotic, really rather extraordinary and, for me, unputdownable. The Book of Strange New Things is a highlight of the year for me and will stay with me for a long time. A serious contender for my book of the year.
Lock In by John Scalzi, Gollancz
Haden’s Syndrome is a super flu, a new Spanish Flu in its virulence, that struck much of the world’s population, leaving millions dead and the rest relieved to recover. That was before stage two hit. This second attack gave a proportion of the survivors a form of meningitis that left some dead and others mentally different. A smaller number, 1% of the population, is left in a waking coma, unable to move and communicate and yet aware – the condition is named Lock In while the disease itself is called Haden’s Syndrome after Lock In’s most famous victim, the First Lady. A generation after the outbreak, society has been transformed by the legacy of Haden’s Syndrome. The Locked In, or Haden, have been given new life, thanks to quickly developed futuristic technology which allows sufferers to move their consciousness into fully mobile and interactive robots called Threeps (named in honour of C3PO – a pleasant touch). Hadens can also transfer themselves into an online digital society called Agora in which each can have his or her own haven. But this enormous dedication of resources as well as legislation supporting the equality of Hadens, has finally run into a brick wall and, as the novel begins, a new law is about to come into effect which would drastically impact the lives of ordinary Haden, of whom there are more and more each year as the disease continues to find new victims.
Not all of those stricken with the Haden meningitis are Locked In. A few, barely a few thousand per country, have had their minds altered in such a way that they have the potential to become Integrators – they can actually carry, for a fee, the consciousness of the Locked In, pushing their own personalities into the shadows of their minds. All well and good as long as the Haden plays by the rules and doesn’t use his or her borrowed body for anything more harmful than a Supersized fast food feast.
Set in the near and recognisable future, Lock In is a complex, clever and thoroughly entertaining novel that is both murder mystery and science fiction. Its worldbuilding is superb. Our hero and mouthpiece, Shane, is am interesting character. He’s both a Haden in a Threep and an FBI agent, brand new on the job (in fact it’s his first week), whose team investigates crimes involving Haden. Shane, with a famous sportsman and now potential politician for a father, has grown up as the the poster boy for Haden, His famous (metal) face supported by a millionaire’s wallet. Despite this background, Shane manages to be both immensely likeable and capable, as indeed is his father. Being perceived as not quite human is something that Shane has to deal with every day, while his human body lies in a cradle in his parents’ home, cared for day and night, his thoughts and pains and dreams alive in this superhuman robotic body. All the time, the commentary comes from Shane. We see this world through Locked In eyes and it’s all the more powerful and effective and human for it.
Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey, Orbit
Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in the Expanse series. It is also, in my view, a contender for best in what has become one of my favourite of all series, irrespective of genre. I’ll give the minimum away here.
The floodgates have opened. The mysterious alien gate to the stars has been subdued, heralding a race to colonise the most promising of the planets, many light months from Earth but just days away thanks to this artefact. Ilus is a most attractive target – rich in metals and welcoming in climate. Royal Charter Energy (RCE) is quick off the mark, sending a mission of scientists to explore the planet and its habitats, to determine the best and safest way to extract its bounty. Unfortunately, when their vessel the Edward Israel arrives, it is to find a planet already settled and already named, New Terra. Trying to make a life on the planet are refugees from past attacks by the protomolecule which filled the pages of the previous novels, especially the assault on Ganymede. These are people with little to lose except the new ground beneath their feet and so they fight to keep it.
This is a thoroughly exciting adventure and mystery, mixing a complex, thrilling, pageturning plot with fascinating character development. Without doubt, this is the novel I wanted next from the Expanse and it promises so much for what is to come.
Defenders by Will McIntosh, Orbit
It is 2029 and first contact has arrived in the form of the Luyten. These large, star-shaped aliens drop from their vessels at a sprint, unleashing hell, driving people into the cities, always more than one step ahead of their human enemy because, it is discovered, they are telepathic. One careless strategic thought will race like wildfire, costing lives, many millions it is believed, spreading despair. When all hope seems lost, scientist Dominique Wiewell manufactures the Defenders – organic yet machine-like warriors, three legged for speed, giant in size, unable to procreate, stunted in imagination, always hungry, deadly. Humans watch in gratitude and joy as the Defenders tear the Luyten apart. One might have expected that this would be the end of the crisis. Far from it.
The depiction of the relationship between humans and their created Defenders is fascinating but for me the highlight is the relationship between humans and Luytens. I think this is extraordinary. The difficulties of communicating can only make matters worse but when Luytens do try and talk to humans how far can they be believed? How far can humans be believed? The opening third of the novel makes it plain how aggressive these aliens are. Billions of humans are slaughtered. Can this harm be forgiven? Should it? Who is to blame is a major question of Defenders and our answer to it may shift and crumble repeatedly though these marvellous pages.
It is impossible for me to do justice to Defenders. Packed into its 500 pages is an explosion of drama, emotion, action, pain, thrills and questions – questions about who we are as people and our prejudices or acts of cruelty against the unfamiliar (expressed here in a Defender’s matter of fact explanation of why humans made Defenders with three legs not two). Last year I was captivated by Will’s Love Minus Eighty, an emotional mix of clever science fiction with social satire, and as a result Defenders was a priority read for me. It is a stunning book and, without doubt, it is my favourite first contact novel. It is not only thrilling and exhilarating, it’s painful and moving, extremely clever and rewarding, full of ideas and populated by characters you can’t help caring for and feeling for, even those you feel you shouldn’t. What a writer! More, please!
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, Picador
It all begins during Act 4 of King Lear. The play is performed at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, on a stage covered in artificial snow, mirroring the snow that has fallen on the streets of the true city under the skies. An actor collapses. Within days, a few weeks at most, almost everyone in the audience, on stage, backstage and in the streets, bars and shops is dead, claimed by the Georgia Flu. It is estimated that 99% of the world’s population is killed by the disease. The world as we know it ends. Twenty years later, a troop of actors, the Travelling Symphony, walks the potholed, grass-cracked roads, performing A Midsummer’s Night Dream and other plays to enthusiastic acclaim from communities they happen upon during the vast stretches of very little. The troop of actors, writers and musicians has a slogan, ‘Survival is Insufficient’. In this post-apocalyptic vision it is not enough just to survive. It is more important to live.
Station Eleven is an extraordinary novel. The marketing campaign from Picador has been second to none but Emily St. John Mandel has created a wonderful thing – a novel that is every bit as good as the buzz and excitement proclaim. It is not a long novel but it is rich beyond its length and it is one of the most rewarding novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s an exciting read, full of adventure and puzzles, but it is also such a moving novel. Here are characters enduring the very worst and emerging on the other side – clearly not everyone will survive, the odds are dead set against that, but the narrative ties us to their stories with the utmost skill. The worldbuilding is perfect but it is exceptionally lightly done, built on memories, hopes and dread. I would recommend Station Eleven to anyone, whether you’re a fan of apocalyptic fiction or not.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North Orbit
As 1918 turns into 1919, Harry August is born in the ladies washroom of a railway station in England’s northeast; a birth that the mother does not survive. This, though, is not the first time. Harry August is one of the Kalachakra, or the ouroborans, people who are born time after time, reliving the same years but with the ability to make changes within their lives. This is because they are able to remember past lives. It also qualifies them to become members of the secret but widely spread Cronus Club, an organisation that exists to help those who are born this way but also there to ensure that certain rules are obeyed. When Harry is on his deathbed for the eleventh time, a young girl gives him a message handed down from the future into the past warning him of the end of the world. It is up to Harry, and men and women like him, to save the future.
The understanding that one will never permanently die, that one will always have to go through yet another childhood but with the experiences of an adult making one different from everyone else, has to twist and mark the character in so many ways. Along with the knowledge that past mistakes can be avoided comes the increasing awareness that it’s not possible to save everyone else. Harry August lives a succession of alternate lives, exploring different roles and relationships with wives and family, and trying to determine what the point is of it all. When Harry is given the apocalyptic message from the future he is given the chance to explore that point, bringing him into contact with other ouroborans, all of whom are dealing with the same problem of purpose in different ways.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a marvellous novel, rolling up several genres into one, including thriller and science fiction. It is clever and full of grand themes but it is also witty and alive with fascinating characters, many of whom have their own ideas about how to take on this world that won’t let them die. As the novel goes on, Harry August becomes an unputdownable race of a thriller. Its plot is brilliantly structured and paced. It twists the brain in all kinds of directions but never stops being thoroughly entertaining.
A Darkling Sea by James Cambias, Tor
Deep within the oceans of watery, ice-covered planet Ilmatar lies a deep-sea laboratory built by humans and full of scientists. Their mission is to study and absolutely not interfere with the native species of Ilmatarans, a sentient blind lobster-like race that lives on the ocean floor, farming algae and fish and harvesting the mineral-rich vents. This peaceful co-existence (founded on ignorance on one side and curiosity on the other) is strictly monitored by a third species, the offworld Sholen. If the Sholen were to learn that humans had made their presence known to the Ilmatarans then they would force them off the planet, or worse. It’s unfortunate, then, that Henri Kerlerec, an adventurer scientist and media favourite, should choose to test the invisibility of his new diving suit on a bunch of Ilmatarans. It’s even more unfortunate that these particular Ilmatarans should be an expedition of scientists who cannot believe their good fortune in discovering such an oddity swimming in their environment. So curious are they, and so odd is it, that they have no choice but to rush it back to one of their labs and dissect it, bit by bit. Henri’s suit camera films it all. It’s not long before the Sholens are in orbit. And from then on things can only get worse. There will be war.
A Darkling Sea is a captivating first contact novel. It mixes perfectly the horrific and the fantastic by skillfully mixing the perspectives of these three species as they get to know each other kilometres below the surface of the ice-bound planet. We focus on a few representative individuals from each race – the humans Rob and Alicia, the Ilmataran Broadtail and the Sholen Tizhos and Gishora. The narrative tense alters, turning present, when depicting Broadtail’s experiences, reflecting his different perspective, one built on touch not sight, and giving it an immediacy and a difference from the human perspective. A Darkling Sea is one of the most enjoyable and memorable science fiction novels I’ve read. It has curiosities in every section. It makes the jaw drop and it makes me laugh – as well as cover my eyes. These are proper aliens. It’s hard to imagine how on earth (or not on earth) these different species could even attempt to understand each other but James Cambias does a superb job of doing just that.
The Martian by Andy Weir, Del Rey/Crown
Mark Watney is one of the first human beings to walk on Mars. The chances are he’s going to set a whole load of other records because, six days after landing, an accident results in his team taking off for Earth in a panic, little realising that the crew member they’re leaving behind and grieving for is not a corpse at all. Far from it. And so Mark’s journal begins.
In a series of log entries, Mark records the Sol days and nights that follow his marooning, a Space Age Robinson Crusoe. But while he could be forgiven for falling into a pool of self pity, watching his oxygen, food and water drip away in a countdown to certain death, Mark Watney does no such thing. From the very first log, Mark Watney grabs his situation with both hands, demonstrating why astronauts are no ordinary mortals, and sets about finding a solution to each of his problems, bit by bit, day by day, setback after setback, success after success. Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where a life saving bit of kit has to be created from a sock and the cover of the flight plan manual? In The Martian, you have the panic and the glory and the worry of this on almost every single page.
This is a novel to mesmerise and entertain readers whether you’re a fan of science fiction or not. It is a tale of extraordinary courage and resolve and such humanity in the face of overwhelming odds. Anything can happen and it often does. It is a wonderful book, written with such deftness and skill, full of tension and drama but also rich in humour. I loved the central character, our marooned Martian, and hung onto his every word.
Now for my favourite SF novel for the year – it’s actually not an easy choice. The Martian, The Book of Strange Things and Station Eleven were hot on its heels, with Defenders and A Darkling Sea barely a step behind. But it’s Peter F. Hamilton… What can I say? This ties with my Historical Fiction top choice for book of the year.
The Abyss Beyond Dreams by Peter F. Hamilton, Macmillan
It is 3326 and Nigel Sheldon, a legend in the Commonwealth that he helped to create so long ago in his interminable existence, takes the next step in his extraordinary life. The Raiel, self-appointed guardians of the mysterious and inexplicable Void construct at the centre of the Galaxy, invite Nigel to enter the Void to look for clues to the survival or otherwise of a number of colony vessels that years ago entered the Void and were lost. The Void has become a place of enchantment to those outside it thanks to the dreams of its Waterwalker which somehow, through the medium of Inigo the Dreamer, have been transmitted to eager listeners throughout the Galaxy, drawing them in to the Void. Nigel needs little encouragement. He makes the journey and the Void seals itself behind him.
At the heart of the novel and Nigel’s experience lies Bienvenido, a planet populated by the descendants of starship crews. But thanks to the distortions of time in the Void, decades become centuries. Bienvenido has been settled for 3,000 years. And its not just time that differs. Humans within the Void are changed. They have innate abilities to control their thoughts and even those of animals. They read the minds of others and they live long lives. These lives, for many, are mystical and the masters of their religion are the skylords who claim their souls at death and carry them into the essence of the Void. But this is a world terrorised by the Fallers, an alien species that lives in the orbit of the planet and drops its eggs onto the surface of Bienvenido, where they seek life to kill and replace. Many humans spend their time seeking out the eggs of the Fallers, among them our hero Slvasta and it is his wonderful heroic story that fills much of The Abyss Beyond Dreams, captivating this reader at least from the moment we meet him.
The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a large book of approximately 700 pages, not quite the brickbook I’m used to with Peter F. Hamilton but it is immensely satisfying and captivating. It mixes its genres and is packed with surprises. I came to care very much about the planet and people of Bienvenido just as I was terrified by the Fallers and mystified and stunned by the skylords. Nigel Sheldon is a great companion through the Void. He is so old he is almost ageless and the wisdom and humour that he has learned along the way stands him in good stead here. Paula Myo makes a welcome cameo but she has some stiff competition in this novel.I love science fiction that makes my jaw drop and my mind soar and time after time Peter F. Hamilton fulfills and expands my hopes. I am so pleased that he has returned to the Commonwealth and given us a novel that I want to shout about. The Abyss Beyond Dreams is a fabulous novel that I can’t even attempt to do justice to. I want to give as little as possible away. My only regret is that it isn’t twice the size. I must be patient and count the days until Night Without Stars.
One of my very favourite series finished in 2014 – TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow. The Infinity Cage was a fitting conclusion.
Time and Time Again by Ben Elton
Journal of the Plague Year (anthology)
The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe
Extinction Game by Gary Gibson
Gleam by Tom Fletcher, Jo Fletcher Books
Alan lives in the centre of the Pyramid, a great black structure in the factory landscape of Gleam, its point distorted by telescopes and observational instruments. Every week its Arbitrators bleed him, and all other working adults, two pints of his precious blood. But Alan is different from the other Pyramid factory workers. He remembers living outside the structure, in a town destroyed by the Pyramidders, its inhabitants slaughtered, the town returned to the ruinous state of everywhere else in the Discard, and only the child Alan saved to be nurtured, of a sort, in the Pyramid. Alan is known as Wild Alan. He cannot stop remembering life outside the Pyramid. He cannot help himself spreading the word. As a result, his wife Marion and child Billy are placed in danger. There is nothing for it. Marion throws him out into the Discard.
The Discard is a place of wonder, disgust, ugliness, music, violence and freedom. Its edges are infiltrated by the swamp, its depths oozing with slime, traversed by enormous snails, some captured and used by traders, but others eaten. Currency is shiny bugs, the most expensive commodity the rarest mushrooms. Trade in mushrooms is governed by a few monstrous beings, their henchmen even more monstrous – giants that howl and giggle like babies. A few years after leaving the Pyramid, having lived from hand to mouth by entertaining bars with Snapper his guitar, Alan is given a choice that is no choice – in order to save his son he must supply the Arbitrators with the finest and most scarce mushrooms. To do this, Alan must venture into the depths of Discard, pursued by his rivals, escorted by the strangest of travelling companions, into a slimy world that contains Gleam’s deepest secrets and mysteries.
Gleam is an astonishing novel. Its worldbuilding is not only spectacular, I can think of almost none to rival it. The richness of this world, its creatures, its enormous structures, with endless staircases into the slime, its bars and houses of refuge and its mysterious vast expanses of unknown swamp, crisscrossed by ageless structures, littered with objects with no known function, traversed by traders and killers, is staggering. Likewise, Alan is a fascinating, unusual hero. Gleam is the first in a trilogy. It stands well on its own but its ending is as surprising and shocking as the rest of this fine, wonderfully written novel and it makes the time until book two seem long indeed
Son of the Morning by Mark Alder, Gollancz
The fear of God and damnation fuelled medieval life. Its fire was fed by the estates of Church and King, the poor predated on by both. But while kings might call on angels for support against the holy forces of their enemy, and while rich and poor alike might entreat saints (or indulgences) to intercede in the daily struggle of a hard life and its inevitable end, it might not hurt to hedge one’s bets – to pester demons and devils for their support. If God won’t listen, maybe Lucifer will. In these times, angels, demons and devils were not fantasy, they were a part of the shadows and lights that watched the daily lives and thoughts of every soul. It is into this medieval world that we are immersed in Son of the Morning – we are dipped into a century where the statues of saints chatter in churches while capricious angels play in the coloured light of Europe’s most royal chapels. Where demons and devils wait for the gates of hell to open just enough, and where the richest in the land consort with monsters. And where the poor are trodden into the mud of the battlefield or discarded in the sewage on the streets. But what if there are demons that will listen just to them? What if a saviour should emerge – not from heaven but a son of Lucifer?
Son of the Morning, written beautifully and powerfully and fantastically from the very first page, finishes perfectly, ending the story for some and hinting at a host of new characters – human, divine and unholy – to come. This is the first in a trilogy. The next cannot come quickly enough, especially with the hints of what lies ins store, including that most diabolic of pestilences, the Black Death. Without doubt, this is one of the most imaginative and vivid novels I have read in years and I will remember for a long time the pleasure it has given me.
Age of Iron by Angus Watson, Orbit
If you take a look at the banner above this post, you’ll find Maiden Castle looking down at you out of a frosty chilled sky. Always one of my favourite places, I jumped at the chance to read a novel about it, back in its Iron Age glory, populated by fierce warriors, terrifying druids and the finest craftsmen and women of the age. Age of Iron by Angus Watson delivered all that I asked for by the chariot load. Fiction it certainly is, there are no firsthand accounts of Iron Age Britain other than those written by Julius Caesar, the conqueror who couldn’t pull it off, and so Age of Iron is perhaps more fantasy than (pre)historical fiction. But how real it feels! The novel is set in the years immediately before Caesar’s much anticipated arrival and, as the preface states, ‘The following is what really happened’. And, after reading this bloody, thrilling and exhilarating tour de force of an adventure, who am I to argue?
The year is 61 BC and the southern tribes of Britain are dominated by King Zadar, whose power spirals out from Maidun Castle (as it’s called here) to enclose all of the neighbouring tribes and hillforts. While many pay him an annual tribute of slaves, metal and crops, others are stamped out by his fierce army of male and female warriors, archers and charioteers. As the novel begins, Zadar has reached Barton. The inhabitants trust that he will march on by but Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary who was on his way to enlist in Zadar’s army but somehow got stuck instead with the responsibility of knocking Barton’s ‘army’ into shape, knows differently. And as Zadar’s fearsome elite female archers strike the first blows, Sealskinner knows there is nothing to do but run. Slaughter ensues.
This is the world into which Angus Watson throws us. It is violent and life is short but he gives us three people who each have the power to make a difference. Age of Iron is one of the most exciting novels I have read in a long time. From start to finish there is never a pause in the action. Dug, Lowa and Spring take us on a journey across Iron Age southern Britain as they travel in pursuit of Zadar, honing their skills, getting to know each other, fighting their way from fort to fort, town to town. Their trip is marked by numerous memorable adventures, many of which it’s a miracle anyone can survive, and the people they meet prove time and time again that Dug is right in his philosophy of life – never trust anyone and never help anyone – that he can never keep.
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Hodder & Stoughton
Herr Wolf is an immigrant in 1939 London, one of many Germans driven out from the Fatherland after the fall of fascism in the 1933 German elections. Wolf was once the leader of German fascism but, with his own country caught in the vice of a communist revolution, Wolf, as he now calls himself, makes ends meet as a private detective, living in London’s underworld, amongst its gangsters, thugs and prostitutes. Wolf would never choose to work for Jews unless desperate but desperate he is when Isabella Rubinstein walks into his office. Her sister Judith is missing, one of many immigrants smuggled out of Germany and now lost. Isabella knows exactly which buttons to press. Wolf is soon entangled and descends even deeper into the rot in London’s poorest streets and its racket clubs, so many of which are run by the men who once, years before, clicked their heels at Wolf.
But none of this is real. Shomer lies dreaming in the hell that the Nazis have created. He is in Auschwitz, his family slashed in two, his wife and children gassed, his own survival unlikely. Before the Holocaust, Shomer was a writer of pulp fiction. Now he survives one day at a time by dreaming an alternate history, one in which Hitler never rose to power but instead has to hide himself in a foreign city under a different name, working for the very people he despises, pitied and repudiated by Britain’s own rising fascist faction, and reduced to something less than human by the the lust and hatred that has twisted his soul.
In A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar has created an extraordinary vision of a shifted, dark and rotted world. At its heart Shomer lies dreaming and throughout we are given brief and painfully graphic glimpses into his night and day. A Man Lies Dreaming might be dark and powerful and at times painfully graphic (sex and violence – especially the sex) but I found the novel fascinating and extremely difficult to put down, reading it in a couple of sittings. It’s hugely clever, aimed at (and hitting) both the reader’s heart and mind, witty and completely absorbing.
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie, Harper Voyager
When King Uthrik and his heir are taken through the Last Door on the edge of a murderer’s sword, Prince Yarvi ascends the Black Chair, wearing the King’s Circle on his brow. This was not the destiny Yarvi had hoped for. His wish had been to complete his spiritual training and to become a minister as plain Brother Yarvi, no longer a prince. To his father and brother, Yarvi had seemed half a man, one of his hands deformed beyond use. Restrained by unkind words and deeds, Yarvi is unprepared for kingship. It seems like cruel destiny, then, when he is cast from the throne through the greatest of treacheries, thrown into the sea, from which he is reborn as a slave, an oarsman and, finally, a warrior and one of a band of brothers and sister, each with their own vengeance to wreak, especially Yarvi who has a throne to claim.
Half a King is a fantasy adventure but for me it is fresh with the sea air of a Viking saga. It has a suitably traditional, ageless theme – the young prince overthrown who must prove himself as a warrior and leader before he can become king – but Yarvi’s character, and so many others aboard this novel, is so distinct and original that there are surprises throughout and our expectations as to the outcome of such a saga are wonderfully challenged. The ending is superb. I’m not a great reader of fantasy, usually preferring stories bound by history or science, but there is so much in Half a King that I could relate to, reminding me of Old English and Norse poems, and an ancient sea-tied society that had to make sense of its icy, harsh, feudal surroundings. There is no magic here, just a mythology, and no supernatural beings, just hints of a distant, forgotten elfish past. This is, I understand, Joe Abercrombie’s first Young Adult novel. Reading it, though, I would never have assumed it was for readers of any specific age – it has timeless appeal. There is also, thank heavens, much more to come.
The Flight of the Silvers by Daniel Price, Blue Rider Press
One night all the power of the Earth turns off for a full nine minutes, stopping clocks dead, turning off lights and smashing down to the ground every last plane in the skies. The next day, the power goes off again but this time not to return. This time a white light brings the heavens down on Earth, literally squeezing the ground to the sky, ending life on the planet, ending the planet itself. Except for just a few souls. In the last moments before the end, six individuals are visited by strangers who slap silver bracelets on their wrists, encasing them in a protective bubble or egg, safe to experience the death of the world. These are the Silvers, people who find themselves on a different Earth – similar in some ways and yet so alien in others. On this Earth taxis can fly, food can be rejuvenated, the ghosts of the past can be brought back to life. A group of scientists brings together our six Silvers: insecure teenager Mia, golden boy David, alcoholic Theo, zany cartoonist Zack and two sisters, the Givens, Amanda the nurse and Hannah the actress. They have other names, though – orphan, widow – because that is what they all are. All are bereaved, frightened, shocked and, not surprisingly, together they form a new family, united against this strange novel world while discovering that they themselves are among the weirdest things on it. Each of them has a power, some of which, wrongly used, can kill. As a result, others want to kill or capture them. And when the time comes there is no alternative, they must run, searching for the one man who might bring sense to this chaos and even save them.
The Flight of the Silvers is a fabulous piece of speculative fiction. Its opening chapter is completely captivating, introducing Amanda and Hannah in a way that is unforgettable. The great news is that the rest of the novel lives up to its beginning, through all of its 600 glorious pages. Nothing can be relied upon in this strange new Earth, most especially time, and so anything can happen and it does. There are surprises by the chapter and they’re not small ones either. There is no doubt that in places it is bonkers. There are as many paradoxes at play here as there are in the juiciest episodes of SciFi TV and there were moments that made me laugh and marvel at the sheer audacity of the twists and turns. Every answer raises at least two more questions.
The Three by Sarah Lotz, Hodder & Stoughton
Black Thursday is a day that history will remember with dread. Simultaneously, on different continents, four commuter planes crashed to earth, their passengers and crew all dead except for three children, one from each of three of the planes, who walked unharmed from the devastation. One other passenger was to survive for a brief time, Pamela May Donald, who left a message on her home answer machine which was to provide less of a clue as to what may have happened, than a warning of what the world may be about to face: ‘They’re here… The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many… They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon. All of us. Bye Joanie I love the bag bye Joanie, Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to…’. As relatives come forward to claim the three children, a media frenzy takes hold of the world, fuelled by the emerging strangeness of the children and by the fervour of the evangelical cult, the Pamelists, which, under the instruction of Pastor Len, has no doubt at all that The Three herald the Apocalypse and that the Rapture is nigh. Panic spreads, especially when rumours emerge of a possible fourth child who walked unharmed from the crash site in Africa.
The Three presents these phenomenal events through the device of investigative journalist Elspeth Martin’s Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy. It comprises a series of journal extracts, emails, expert reports and interviews with those most closely related to the surviving children as well as with the others – the people with their own ideas and conspiracy theories. The Three is a stunning novel, truly astonishing in its complexity, vision and power, combining thriller and horror with the utmost success. Sarah Lotz pulls the many strands together into an intricate beautiful web that both horrifies and sparkles. It is full of life, just as it resonates with death, and there is humour to go with the dread. There is a great mystery here but it was the telling of that mystery that I loved even more than its revelation. I loved every page, from its dark enigmatic cover to its final tense message.
The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Orbit
Melanie is a smart, inquisitive and affectionate ten year old. She would much prefer to be called Pandora rather than Melanie but she knows that she must do whatever she is told and understands that there must be a good reason why she is kept locked in a cell, why she is chained to a wheelchair when it’s time for lessons, why she and her friends are pushed into the classroom one by one, the fingers of one hand freed so that she can make notes. Miss Justineau is Melanie’s favourite teacher. She teaches them about myth and legend, history and the world outside, the world that Melanie is not allowed to see. Until the day comes when Melanie’s cell door is opened for the last time.
The Girl With All the Gifts proved to be a shock to me. It challenged all my expectations and preconceptions about horror and delivered a story and young heroine that are both captivating and unforgettable. It was pretty obvious to me from the outset what this book would be about – just the wonderful cover and the premise were enough. M.R. Carey is such a good writer, as his work as author and film writer under other guises has shown, and he has mixed together the human and unhuman into an extraordinary pageturner that is as moving as it is horrifying and thrilling. Our sympathies are taken to places you wouldn’t normally expect them to go. Nobody or nothing is immune from our care and, as a result, this reader at least wasn’t able to tear herself away from Melanie’s side. If you don’t like horror, especially ‘this’ type of horror, The Girl With All the Gifts may still be the book for you. I’ll be surprised if this isn’t in my top ten for 2014.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Harper Voyager
Malorie discovers she is pregnant at the same time as the first reports appear on the news. The violent stories are easy to disbelieve – people in random locations across the world are suddenly and uncharacteristically driven to harm others before killing themselves. As the reports increase in number, worry grows, as does disconnection between places, friends and families, until Malorie and her sister Shannon are left to hide in their house behind windows shielded with mattresses. It is rumoured that it is the sight of something that drives people to murder and self-murder. The internet and television die and, finally, when she looks out of the window, Shannon dies. Malorie has no choice but to seek help blindly, driving with eyes closed towards a nearby house she’d found advertised as a safe haven in a paper’s adverts. When Tom and his companions, blindfolded, open the door to Malorie a new phase in her life begins. Nothing will ever be the same again. Daylight and fresh air are one’s enemies, safety can be found only in dark, stale rooms, filled with fear.
Bird Box is a relatively short novel and it is quite likely that you’ll read it, like me, in a day. Told in the present tense, this is horror at its most immediate and chilling – what could be more instinctive than to open one’s eyes to see the threat, recognise the danger and then be able to fight it? Not in this world. The atmosphere of Bird Box is thick with suggestion, horror and dread. This becomes mixed in with suspicion and distrust as the enforced darkness and claustrophobia of such a life closes in. There is a process of dehumanisation underway, although there are efforts to hang on to some kind of twisted normality in this post-apocalyptic world. Not knowing what’s out there and not seeing it makes whatever it is all the worse. The mind begins to compensate for what it’s not allowed to see. Bird Box both mesmerised and frightened me. Without doubt, it is one of the best and (perversely) enjoyable horror stories I’ve read for a long time. A great debut.