Category Archives: Sci Fi

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North

Orbit | 2019 (14 November) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire NorthIn 1884, English medical doctor William Abbey was in Natal in South Africa and stood by while a young boy was beaten and burnt to death by a mob in front of his eyes. He stood by and did nothing. His mother, who held her murdered child Langa in her arms as he died, looked into Abbey’s eyes and cursed him. Forever now, William Abbey will be pursued by the shadow of Langa. Wherever he flees, Langa will always follow him and will find him. Every time he catches Abbey, a person dearly loved by the doctor will die. The first person who dies is Abbey’s dear sister. Abbey must now frantically keep one step ahead of his relentless, terrible shadow to keep alive everyone he loves, while never daring to love again. He embarks on an endless journey that takes him across Africa and back to Europe and beyond, even to India, culminating in the trenches of France in 1917, where the novel begins. It’s as he travels that Abbey discovers another side to the curse. He can see the secrets in the heart of people around him and when Langa gets very close he is unable from shouting them out. It’s terrifying.

Claire North is one of my very favourite writers and has been ever since I read the first novel published under this name back in 2014, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, a tremendous novel. One of the top reads I’ve had in 2019 is The Gameshouse, one of the most clever books I’ve ever read, and so it was a joy to discover that we were to have another novel by Claire North this year. William Abbey, like all of these books, has the most fantastic premise, which really appealed to my love of speculative fiction. It’s a mesmerising idea. But, again as with the other books, this premise is explored to throw light on something else, something dark, something significant, and in William Abbey that something else is colonialism

What Abbey witnesses in South Africa, and also in India, is appalling and he cannot escape it because the truth is pursuing him – across oceans, mountains and deserts. We witness cruelty and prejudice, great injustice and terrible anger and sadness. Abbey comes to the attention of the Nineteen, a government agency working across the British Empire who need men such as Abbey to discover the truth about what their targets are thinking. This is dangerous as it means he has to allow Langa to get very close indeed. It’s no way to live if Abbey can be said to be living any kind of life at all.

Abbey himself is an intriguing character. He’s a man caught in his time who sees it at its worst which means he’s hard to warm to, or like, even while we try to understand him. He narrates the novel, we experience his world through his eyes, we feel the terror and the fear, as well as the guilt. One of the most fascinating elements of the book is when Abbey meets other men and women like him and learns some of the reasons behind their curses. This can be troubling but also heartbreaking as Abbey learns why people cannot forget the past, why it must continue to live through them, through their curse. So many lessons to learn, so much to atone for.

This is a disturbing tale and there is a lot of empire to cover. One drawback of this for me is that I found there was an element of repetition, perhaps inevitably due to the structure and endless chase of the novel. This also led to a bit of a lag in the middle. Nevertheless, while William Abbey isn’t my favourite Claire North book, it is still an excellent and significant novel with some extremely powerful sections of prose. Claire North is a fine writer who impresses time after time. What an extraordinary imagination she has and how gifted she is at telling us her stories. I look forward to reading every single one of them.

For another review of William Abbey, please do take a look at David’s excellent review at Blue Book Balloon.

Other reviews
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Touch
The Sudden Appearance of Hope
The End of the Day
84K
The Gameshouse

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers

Sceptre | 2019 (14 November) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Body Tourists by Jane RogersIn the near future, England is divided. The rich live well, as they’ve always done, in the south while the poor are ghettoed in the northern Estates. There is no shortage of poor people. Many if not most jobs have now been replaced by robots. Making a living is nigh on impossible. The only way to live well is to inherit money. But the poor have one thing that the wealthy want more of – time. When the wealthy die they are ‘backed up’, their consciousness digitally stored waiting for a host body in which it can be implanted. And that’s where scientist Luke Butler comes in. He has used his aunt’s wealth to develop technology that will transfer the consciousness of the dead into the healthy young bodies of especially selected poor people. In return for losing two weeks of their lives, the poor are rewarded with £10,000, a mighty sum in these dystopian days. And so now the rich can be resurrected for two glorious weeks which means an opportunity to say a final goodbye, to right a wrong, or to make the same mistakes all over again. What could possibly go wrong?

Body Tourists has an irresistible premise and I couldn’t wait to read it. The structure works well. We follow the stories of Luke and his rich aunt, but we also spend time with a series of people, one at a time, who either make the step of bringing a loved one back to life for two weeks, or who decide to become hosts themselves. And then there are the others, the families and friends of those who become hosts, and have to deal with a kind of loss of their own. This is a fascinating and horrible society. Money is so precious and so scarce. People have to make decisions they shouldn’t and the consequences can be awful for them.

There is some great worldbuilding here. The descriptions of the northern estates are especially compelling. People are effectively sedated by their virtual reality games, turning themselves into zombies, while a few fight back setting up gyms and dance studios, anything to get people to engage with a real world that cares nothing for them. I really enjoyed the chapters that we spend here, especially with Paula whose life is transformed by her experiences as a host. There are other stories that are really moving, that of the teacher accused of a terrible crime whose lover never got the chance to say she was sorry for disbelieving her, or disturbing, such as the man who brings his father back to life so that they can try and reboot their relationship. These are the very real strengths of Blood Tourists.

I did have issues with the novel, mostly involving the character of Luke Butler, who is just too unpleasant. He and other characters are too light, mostly those involved in running the clinic, and the whole idea of bringing people back to life for only two weeks seems flawed. How would they ever be expected to give up life again? How could you get anything from two weeks when there’s a death sentence at the end of it? And then there’s the unsatisfactory idea of the paradise island where they’re all sent. Well, not all, and that raises another issue about why some body tourists are allowed to have contact with loved ones and others aren’t. In other words I loved a lot about the ideas behind this novel but I would have liked them explored with more depth and consistency. This is a short novel, a longish novella really, so perhaps it could have been longer. I would certainly have liked to have read more. There is so much going for Body Tourists and, above all else, it’s a fun read and a fascinating portrayal of a near future dystopian England.

Other review
The Testament of Jessie Lamb

The Grid by Nick Cook

Bantam Press | 2019 (14 November) | 407p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Grid by Nick CookJosh Cain, ex-military and doctor to Robert Thomsen, President of the United States of America, is summoned to a church tower close to the White House. An ex-Marine stands ready to leap to his death. He seems to know who Cain is and he has something important to tell him. There is a plot against the President’s life and Cain must leave no stone unturned to protect him. Seconds later a sniper’s bullet to the head kills the unknown man instantly. The President receives death threats every day but there is something chilling about this warning and it speaks to Cain personally, reminding him of his own loss, that of his beloved wife. The dead man had asked if Cain believes in God. Cain’s mind is filled with questions about the gap, so small, just an instant away, between death and life. The President has his own death on his mind. He dreams about his own death time after time. It always happens the same way. It feels completely real. Cain must wonder if the President’s dreams and the plot are connected, that they are linked by a new threat, one that can manipulate the human mind.

I love political thrillers and I also can’t get enough of speculative or techno thrillers and when the two combine, as with Nick Cook’s The Grid, I cannot resist. The opening chapter has quite a hook to it as Cain tries to save the life of someone he cannot understand but desperately wants to. We’re immediately plunged into a mystery that’s both intriguing and sinister. At the heart of it is Cain and the novel is told in his words as he endeavours to unravel a complicated plot against the President. As it becomes ever more apparent that the plot might be closer to the President that he might like, Cain also has to navigate the complex structure of security agencies that work in secret to keep the President and the country safe. It is a minefield. And the more he digs the more the personal danger for Cain, and his helper Special Agent Hetta Hart, culminating in one absolutely terrifying moment.

The thriller doesn’t just stick to Washington DC and Camp David, it also takes us to Jerusalem and Moscow. The Moscow chapters are among the most fascinating of the book as the leaders of America and Russia try to develop a relationship that might just save the world, or not. I loved the mood of this, the move between offices (including the Oval Office), cars and planes. It’s all so official and yet it’s absolutely deadly.

I did have some issues with the novel, mostly to do with its huge number of characters, each working for different agencies, in America and elsewhere, meaning there is also an awful lot of acronyms. If it weren’t for the dramatis personae at the end of the novel, I would have really struggled, not least because sometimes characters are called by their first name and then later by their surname and it isn’t easy at all to tie the two together. I did find the nature of The Grid itself a little baffling but I don’t mind that in a techno thriller, I find keeping track of a multitude of characters much harder. And there are so many agencies! Fortunately, though, the second half of the book was much clearer and so I’m glad that I decided to stick with it. Because the latter stages are utterly compelling and gripping. They’re also quite haunting and emotional as Cain faces his own past, just as the President must face his.

There are some messages here that I like, especially the importance of being kind. You never know when life will end and perhaps the final judgement will come not from God but from yourself. How would you wish to be judged? The most important thing is love. It might be a complicated thriller but its prime message is a simple one and it’s very effective.

Interference by Sue Burke

Tor | 2019 (22 October) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Interference by Sue BurkeInterference is the second novel in Sue Burke’s Semiosis Duology. Both novels stand well on their own – they’re set a considerable time apart – but I think you do need to read Semiosis first. This review assumes that you’ve had the pleasure.

Two centuries have passed since human colonists landed on the planet Pax, a world that humans had to share with sentient, intelligent animal life and plant life. A kind of utopia was established in which everyone and everything had to work together for the good of one and for the good of all. An animated world, filled with beauty and danger, watched over by Stevland, a bamboo plant who uses humans and indigenous animals as tools for the good of society. Earth seems a long way away and it is soon almost forgotten. Contact with the home world ceases. And that brings new humans to Pax, scientists who want to know why Pax went silent. Harmony is disrupted as the new humans introduce technology that the human colonists have lost. But perhaps more disturbing that that is the knowledge of Earth that these men and women have carried with them. Both Earth and Pax have shown themselves to be vulnerable.

I absolutely loved Semiosis and it’s a joy to return to the wonderful world of Pax. Life is lived in a small settlement. It’s a rural life, with humans working alongside the local population of Glassmakers (which look a little like praying mantises). There is a real sense of wonder about some of the animals and plant life of Pax. Communication, understanding and cooperation are such important themes. It’s all beautifully and lovingly described, although at times there is violence and sadness. The Glassmakers have customs which are hard for humans to accept. But they must do so. Humans and Glassmakers get along, despite the history of mistrust between them, something that is awoken when the new humans arrive with their racist descriptions of the Glassmakers as insects.

Each of the long chapters is told from the perspective of a different individual, whether an Earth human, a Pax human, a Glassmaker or the extraordinary plant, Stevland. Stevland is such a fascinating concept. My favourite characters, though, are the Glassmakers, who reveal their feelings through smell and are incredibly loyal.

The new humans are less appealing and I must admit that I enjoyed far less the sections spent in their company. Some of them are narrow-minded, ignorant (perhaps even stereotypically so) and embarrassing. They also reveal something about the apocalypse that has robbed Earth of almost all human life.

Interference didn’t grip me as much as Semiosis, possibly I think because of the introduction of these new, flawed humans. This all distracted from the wonder of Pax and the incredible way in which the human colonists have changed in two centuries, with the way, for example, that each generation of colonist distinguishes itself from the others. It was all so new and fascinating in Semiosis, all so positive. Interference is darker. It’s also slow in places – I don’t think that the structure helps. Nevertheless, this is beautiful writing and, with no doubt at all, this duology is extremely intelligent science fiction and Pax, gorgeous Pax, is an absolute joy to explore.

Other review
Semiosis

Salvation Lost by Peter F Hamilton

Macmillan | 2019 (31 October) | 468p | Review copy | Buy the books

Salvation Lost by Peter F HamiltonSalvation Lost is the middle novel of a trilogy that began last year with Salvation. I’d strongly urge you to read the earlier novel first because Salvation Lost follows on directly from its great reveal. You don’t want to lose that impact. The first novel also introduced us to the Olyix – that will make what happens here all the more shocking. This review assumes that you’re ready to learn what happens next.

In the early years of the 23rd century, mankind has had a great shock. The Olyix, the friendly aliens who have been generously sharing their technology, are intent on harvesting all human life, to serve everyone up to their god when they finally reach their destination countless thousands of years in the future. Nobody can believe it, until the wormhole opens and through it comes the apocalypse. But humanity is going to put up a fight. Forces from across the globe join together to come up with a plan to defeat the beast. It’s the beginning of a grand plan that will take generations to complete, if it’s successful, and the vision of its creators is vast. As chaos descends on the Earth, with cities fighting for their lives and alien saboteurs doing their worst, others use whatever help they can to work for a distant future in which a number of humans will be able to surve.

Ever since I finish Salvation I have been longing to read Salvation Lost. Peter F Hamilton is one of my very favourite authors – Pandora’s Star is my favourite science fiction novel while the Night’s Dawn is my favourite trilogy. So there’s a lot to live up to but I am really enjoying the way in which this new trilogy is coming together. It’s mostly centred on Earth a couple of centuries from now, but there is also a parallel story which is set millennia into the future on a distant world. But, in the near future, humans have travelled to the stars and have portal technology and this has led to one of the most wonderful ideas of these books – that you can fill one house with rooms that are actually located somewhere else on Earth or even on other planets. Portals play such an important role in the books and they’re treated in a novel and fascinating way. Nobody travels in a traditional manner and so now, with Earth under attack, the city defence shields are down and portals are shut, people have to deal with an isolation and confinement they aren’t used to. I loved all this.

And then there are the aliens. The aliens are intriguing. Some of them might not even be real. One species might have been created as a lure to the Olyix. But the Olyix overshadow the novel and fill it with foreboding. We spent time with them in Salvation. Now humans must face the consequences. Peter F Hamilton has the most vivid, glorious imagination and he comes up with a truly horrible fate for mankind here. It really did give me the shivers.

The novel moves between different characters, most of whom are involved in either trying to stay alive or in the fight to save mankind. Sometimes the two come together. We see some characters at their worst but others find an inner strength that surprises even themeld – I particularly enjoyed the time spent with Gwendoline, a powerful corporate financier who learns what really matters. Contrasting with that is a gang of drug addicts, who seem to view themselves as glamorous hustlers, which they’re not. Time spent with this bunch was less pleasing… This brings me on to the one element of this book that I really didn’t care for – the sordid and really unappealing sex scenes, which I found just revolting and gratuitous. These are a regular feature of Peter F Hamilton’s books, unfortunately, but they’re at their worst here. But, if you can skip them, as I do, then they don’t spoil the book.

Otherwise, I think that Salvation Lost is a fine novel. It can be quite difficult remembering what happened in a lengthy book you read over a year ago (I’d love it if these books had a synopsis at the back) but it soon came back to me and, actually, Salvation Lost is actually in several ways a fresh start, albeit with some characters back for more. Peter F Hamilton is a great storyteller. This is a very exciting and pacey adventure which also contains enough hard science fiction to keep me happy as well as some huge ideas. Moving between the near future and the distant future works well. There are also some questions that remain to be answered, paving the way for the final novel in the trilogy, The Saints of Salvation. I can’t wait to see how the two storylines come together and whether the great plan works. The first novel ends on a cliffhanger, Salvation Lost doesn’t really, I’m pleased to say. But it does set the stage very well indeed. Once again, I can’t wait!

Other reviews
Pandora’s Star
Judas Unchained
Great North Road
The Reality Dysfunction (Night’s Dawn 1)
The Neutronium Alchemist (Night’s Dawn 2)
The Naked God (Night’s Dawn 3)
The Dreaming Void (Void Trilogy 1)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers 1)
Night Without Stars (Chronicle of the Fallers 2)
Salvation

The Institute by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton | 2019 (10 September) | 496p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Institute by Stephen KingLuke Ellis is a remarkable child. Not only is he a genius to an extraordinary degree, he is also psychic. This ability has yet to emerge fully but it’s there, revealing itself in the occasional item that can move all by itself, and it’s waiting. Just at the moment when Luke and his family are making exciting plans for his next steps in a life that promises so much it is all snatched away. Luke is stolen in the night, his parents slain, and he wakes up hundreds of miles away in Maine in the Institute. There Luke discovers himself amongst other children with psychic abilities, some more advanced than Luke’s. They live under the control of Mrs Sigsby and her ruthless henchmen, whose mission it is to bring out the psychic powers of these children. The regime is brutal and the children are so in need of tender care and love. They receive the opposite. They are lab rats and their future is ended.

A new novel by Stephen King is always such an occasion. I always buy them and read them as soon as I can. I don’t get along with all of them, this is true, but there are a few that really stand out and The Institute is one of these. It isn’t really horror – although some of the things that happen in it are horrible – but a little bit more like science fiction, with a secret lab hidden away in Maine (how could it be anywhere else in King World?) full of abducted psychic children. For me, it had a similar feel to the time travelling 11.22.63. As that’s my favourite King novel this is a very good thing indeed. It did remind me a little of the X-Men stories but not enough to spoil its fantastic premise.

King is a master of creating characters, especially children, who are so easy for us to empathise with. They feel so real and natural, even though they exist in the strangest of places. Luke is a marvellous creation. He’s only twelve-years old, although mature for his age. He’s far too young to be dealing with all of this – the grief of losing his parents so horribly, his captivity, the torture, the loss of friends – but he still can act like a child. It’s hard for him not to behave among adults, even when they want to torture him. Watching Luke grow up before his time is truly disturbing and it’s very upsetting to read about what these children go through, especially 10-year-old Avery, who is so much younger than his years suggest. Avery broke my heart more than once.

The Institute, like so many Stephen King novels, starts brilliantly, and at a bit of a tangent. Before we meet Luke, we meet Tim, an ex-police officer, who appears to be wandering aimlessly until he takes on the job of ‘Door Knocker’ in a small railway town in South Carolina. This small community is superbly evoked by King. And then we leave it for Luke’s story and don’t return for a few hundred pages! Against all the odds, this really works.

The Institute itself is a place where terrible things happen and King goes to town describing the place, its rules, the people who work there, and the children who are confined there. The children are terrified, each dealing with it in their own way, but they’re also still children. They play and make friends, they care for each other and for the younger kids.

I did have a couple of issues with the book but they’re minor. I am really tired of King describing the size of the breasts of every female he creates (it’s totally unnecessary and gratuitous and once you’ve noticed it, it’s hugely irritating!). This annoyed me in The Outsider and it’s much more noticeable and irritating in The Institute. I also didn’t care for the mockery of someone with a speech impediment. It doesn’t matter that he’s a baddie, it just doesn’t feel right. Otherwise The Institute is nigh on perfect and classic King, with fantastic characters, a great story and some wonderful locations, in and out of the Institution. I adored the opening section and the novel builds and builds on it.

Other reviews
11.22.63
With Owen King – Sleeping Beauties

After Atlas by Emma Newman

Gollancz | 2018 | 384p | Bought copy | Buy the book

After Atlas by Emma NewmanAfter Atlas is the second novel in the extraordinary Planetfall universe created by Emma Newman. This series, which now stands at four novels, is astonishing, told by a powerful, original and immensely accessible voice in science fiction. Unusually for a series the first three novels – Planetfall, After Atlas and Before Mars – can be read as stand alone novels and in any order that you wish. But the latest novel Atlas Alone follows directly on from After Atlas, which goes some way towards explaining the strange order in which I’ve read them. Having said all that, although you can read After Atlas without any knowledge of what came before, I would urge you to read Planetfall first because that marvellous novel guides us into this universe, with its religions and aspirations, its loneliness and sadness, its beauty, while also introducing us to its themes. This review assumes you’ve done just that. But if you haven’t, it won’t matter.

Forty years have passed since Atlas left for the stars in search of God and a better place. Carlos’s mother was on that starship and she left him, just a baby at the time, and his father behind. This was extraordinarily difficult for Carlos’s father to deal with and the sadness and neglect affected Carlos in ways which would last him a lifetime. His father was saved by a religious community, the Circle, led by Alejandro Casales, a charismatic man who gathered around him the scientists and their families that Atlas left behind. But Carlos couldn’t settle and so, a teenager, he ran away and from that point on his life went from bad to much, much worse. Now decades on, Carlos is a detective working for Govcorp in Norope (a state combining Britain and Scandinavia). But this wasn’t a career choice made by Carlos. His life, his ‘contract’, was bought by the state. He is a slave. He works towards his freedom but it will take decades and now every little luxury, every bite of real, organically-grown food, adds more to Carlos’s time debt. And so when a high-profile figure is found dead in horrific circumstances and Carlos is assigned to the case, there is nothing he can do about it, even though the dead man is none other than Alejandro Casales.

Carlos cannot escape the past. It’s catching up with him in more ways than one. A time capsule left by Atlas is about to be opened and the excitement has gripped everyone the starship left behind. Everyone but Carlos. But Carlos is about to discover that his future is set to be every bit as bad as his past, even worse, as he loses control of events as the world looks on.

This is a magnificent series and I love how each one is so different. After Atlas is particularly different. We’re firmly back on Earth. It’s still science fiction – this is a future world in which everyone is tapped in to their own personal AI – but more than anything it’s a crime novel and the mood couldn’t be more dark.

Carlos is a fascinating man and I knew straight away that this would be a very special novel indeed. Emma Newman writes beautifully, she also skilfully creates atmosphere and she has an incredible imagination, because this is a universe with so much depth. Carlos takes us right to its heart and it’s a painful, troubled place. Carlos manages his desperate situation, he’s had time to get used to it, but there comes a time when he is reduced even further and it is absolutely gut wrenching to read. It’s easy to say that a book is impossible to put down but it is truly the case with After Atlas. I wanted to be reading it constantly and I looked forward to getting back to it.

The main characters in these novels are lonely figures, outsiders, not able to sync with those around them. The books explore the reasons for this and have such a humanity about them even though the characters exist in such extraordinary circumstances, sometimes not even on this planet. They are such compelling reads and I think that After Atlas is the most compelling of the three that I’ve read, with a cast of characters who feel so real, even when they behave so badly. Carlos’s relationship with his father is dealt with so gently, while the figure of Alejandro casts such a shadow. There is such a strong sense of mystery and foreboding. It drives the novel on but even more than that the story is shaped by Carlos.

I knew that I had to read After Atlas before Atlas Alone and it was the right decision. The ending of After Atlas is staggering, its impact is immense. The scene couldn’t be set any more effectively for Atlas Alone. But I hope that won’t be the end of the Planetfall universe. There is so much more to discover. These are wonderful, wonderful books. If you’ve not read them, I urge you to pick up Planetfall while After Atlas waits for you to finish.

Other reviews
Planetfall
Before Mars

Cold Storage by David Koepp

HQ | 2019 (19 September) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Cold Storage by David KoeppIn 1987 an unknown fungus is discovered in a remote farmstead in Australia. It hasn’t left a soul alive. Bodies have been ripped apart by the fungus within. It arrived from space, it is merciless in its determination to survive, to adapt to new environments, to conquer anything in its path. The farmstead is bombed sky high but the American authorities have retained a small sample. It is sealed within a Cold War bunker in the US. But, when the Cold War ends and a storage company takes over the bunker, what are night-time security guards Teacake and Naomi to do when, one night, they hear a beeping noise coming from inside a wall? Something long forgotten has adapted. It has woken up.

David Koepp is a screenwriter who has worked on some of the biggest blockbusters, including Jurassic Park, and all of his blockbuster skills are put to good use in Cold Storage. This is a thoroughly entertaining, exhilarating and tense technothriller, which threatens to become apocalyptic, as something occurs to threaten all of mankind. I love this kind of book!

But at the heart of the book lies the people – Teacake and Naomi, we well as Roberto, who visited the farmstead back in 1987 and is something of a relic of the past, and maybe the only person living who understands the threat facing the planet. Most of the attention, though, is on Teacake and Naomi as the author takes his time to flesh out these two rather lonely and damaged souls. I loved how this was done. They’re brought together by a terrible thing, but we get to know them so well, just as they learn to trust one another. There is a real charm and sweetness to their developing relationship, despite the chaos around them, although I doubt anyone had ever considered ex-felon Teacake sweet and charming before. If only it weren’t for that beeping box.

Cold Storage is a pageturner of a thriller even if it does take its time when something else matters, such as the flowering of true love. We need to care about these people risking their lives to save the world. I loved the chapters written from the point of view of the cunning and horrible fungus as it documents its experiments along the way to achieving its true goal – feeding off every person alive. Some moments of the book are disgusting, as you’d expect from a disgusting fungus. Others are so tense. And all the time we root for Teacake and Naomi, this unlikely couple.

I read Cold Storage on a flight and it was the perfect read for it. The time disappeared in a flash. I’ll be watching out for more from David Koepp.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alex E. Harrow

Orbit | 2019 (12 September) | 384p | Bought copy | Buy the book

In the early years of the 20th century the young girl January Scaller lives in a mansion filled with a collector’s curiosities. Parentless, or so it is suspected, she is raised by the wealthy Mr Locke as his ward. But really January feels herself to be part of his collection. With her dark skin and exotic heritage, she is a prized specimen to him and to his scientific society. They almost expect to have a savage in their midst but January is a source of constant surprise and wonder to them. And so she is kept in her gilded cage.

But there comes a day when January finds a strange book in one of the mansion’s odder rooms. It is called ‘The Ten Thousand Doors: Being a Comparative Study of Passages, Portals and Entryways in World Mythology’. Its author is Yule Ian Scholar and it was written in the City of Nin in the year 6908. This peculiar book should puzzle January but instead in it she finds confirmation of something she has already discovered – that there are doors to be found, strange doors, which open into other worlds and January has the power to not only open these special doors but also to open any door. She holds the key to her freedom, if only she can find the right door to open.

I have heard so many wonderful things about The Ten Thousand Doors of January and I couldn’t wait to read it for myself. I’m not generally a reader of fantasy but there’s something about this book that really appealed to me (quite apart from its stunning cover and beautiful writing) – it feels like a mix of historical fiction and science fiction, with an Edwardian girl opening doors into worlds of other possibilities. But not just any Edwardian girl, but one who is vulnerable, regarded as different and exotic, without parental care, virtually a prisoner, in real danger of being considered mad. She is also enchanting.

This is a beautiful novel, beautifully written. The gorgeous cover hints at wonders beneath and it delivers. The book moves between January’s world and the chapters of the book she has discovered. At the beginning it all seems mysterious but the chapters soon seem to make sense to January and through them she is empowered. The descriptions of the doors and the other worlds are stunning and so inviting. You must discover them for yourself.

The novel transcends time and genre as we and January, as well as the author of the strange book, undergo a quest. It is also a love story and it’s a lovely one, painfully sad at times. But this is also a horror novel – a tale of good versus evil. It’s chilling and frightening. What January and her faithful dog Bad must endure is terrifying.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a novel full of ideas and richly layered. It is deeply symbolic and nothing is more symbolic than the door. Each brings with it so many possibilities and openings, although a door can also bring closure and imprisonment. January views these doors in a multitude of ways and it’s a privilege and joy to see them, and the life beyond, through her eyes. To step through one of these doors one must be brave and January is very brave indeed.

January is an outstanding creation. I adored her. So much of the novel is told with her voice and it is dedicated to her. This is January’s journey and, although there are monsters to be encountered along the way, there are also angels. With no doubt at all, this extraordinary novel, Alix E Harrow’s debut, is a book of the year for me and no doubt for many others who have had the pleasure of stepping inside its pages.

The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham

Head of Zeus | 2019 (20 August) | 544p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Cruel Stars by John BirminghamFive centuries ago, the Sturm, having lost the Great War, retreated into the far reaches of space. But they have never been forgotten, humanity (such as it has become) still lives in dread of its nemesis. And now the Sturm has returned, determined to rid human space of those who have adapted to life beyond Earth’s limits with implants and gene therapy, keeping alive through multiple lifetimes by rebirthing or by passing on their consciousness, their spirit, into other bodies. But the Sturm, pure in body and ruthless in their fanaticism, are also after vengeance, particularly against the man who led the war against them, Admiral Frazer McLennan, who is now seeing out another of his long lives as an archaeologist digging up a crashed Sturm spaceship, a site sacred to the Sturm. McLennan really knows how to rub salt in the wound.

The coming of the Sturm will take human space to the brink of annihilation. Few stand in their way – Lucinda Hardy, commander of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship; Booker3, a soldier about to be executed for treason; Princess Alessia whose whole family has been slaughtered; Sephina L’trel, a pirate caught up in it all who fights for the Resistance. And then there’s McLennan himself, as well as his grumpy AI Hero who likes nothing better than to throw anything it doesn’t like into the nearest sun. They’re a motley crew but together they are determined and brave. They’re also desperate and when you’re that desperate you’ll risk everything. And there is everything to lose.

The Cruel Stars opens a new space opera trilogy by John Birmingham and it opens it in very fine form indeed. The worldbuilding is superb. This may be the future but everyone is still recognisable as human (even those with animal enhancements or those who are managing to live forever by a variety of curious means). This is an enhanced world but it certainly has its faults. There are factions and feuds, superstitions and strange religions, fascinating artificial intelligences, revered almost as gods. There is so much depth and variety to this universe, so many ideas. There is more than enough here to sustain a trilogy. I can’t wait to learn more about it.

The novel is packed with action, drama and battles. But it is character-driven as chapters alternate between people we really want to know. I love this sort of structure, which is, of course, reminiscent of the Expanse novels. When done well this really works, as it does here in The Cruel Stars.

I loved all of the characters and each has their own fascinating storyline, but my favourite is McLennan. What a man he is! He seems to spend much of his time recklessly naked, which is rather unpleasant for everyone else, but he’s too old and ugly to care what anyone thinks. And through him we learn more about the conflict 500 years before.

This is a war between good and evil. The bad guys have no redeeming features. As a result, the battles are bloody, gory and full of dismembered limbs flying around. But there is fun to be had. Booker3’s situation is brilliant and very funny. There is also horror – space zombies are rarely pleasant. There are some great ideas, some paying homage to the science fiction world – starships are larger on the inside than on the outside.

The Cruel Stars is such an entertaining space opera, which achieves the perfect mix of action and character. Each enhances and drives the other. This might be the start of a trilogy but the novel stands alone perfectly well and is complete in itself, something I always appreciate. I can’t wait to discover what happens next. I love these characters and I look forward to spending much more time with them. It will be tense, it will be bloody but there will also be something to chuckle about. Excellent!