Tag Archives: Science Fiction

2018 science fiction – looking ahead (January to May)

Following on from yesterday’s post that pulled together some of the historical fiction goodies of the next five months, it’s now the turn of science fiction. As with the historical fiction, this isn’t a definitive list but these are the ones that have especially caught my eye – so far! They’re published between January and the end of May. I hope you find something here to tempt you. Crime and thrillers to follow!

Science fiction

Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds (January; Gollancz)
A new novel by Alastair Reynolds! This cannot come soon enough. ‘Featuring Inspector Dreyfus – one of Alastair Reynolds most popular characters – this is a fast paced SF crime story, combining a futuristic setting with a gripping tale of technology, revolution and revenge. One citizen died a fortnight ago. Two a week ago. Four died yesterday . . . and unless the cause can be found – and stopped – within the next four months, everyone will be dead. For the Prefects, the hunt for a silent, hidden killer is on… Alastair Reynolds has returned to the world of The Prefect for this stand-alone SF mystery in which no one is safe. The technological implants which connect every citizen to each other have become murder weapons, and no one knows who or what the killer is – or who the next targets will be. But their reach is spreading, and time is not on the Prefects’ side.’

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo (January; Headline)
‘Tom and Kate’s daughter turns six tomorrow, and they have to tell her about sleep. If you sleep unwatched, you could be Taken. If you are Taken, then watching won’t save you. Nothing saves you. Your knowledge. Your memories. Your dreams. If all you are is on the Feed, what will you become when the Feed goes down? For Tom and Kate, in the six years since the world collapsed, every day has been a fight for survival. And when their daughter, Bea, goes missing, they will question whether they can even trust each other anymore. The threat is closer than they realise…’

Iron Gold by Pierce Brown (January; Hodder & Stoughton)
‘Darrow was born a slave. He became a weapon. He ended centuries of Gold rule, broke the chains of an empire, and now he’s the hero of a brave new republic. But at terrible cost. At the edge of the solar system, the grandson of the emperor he murdered dreams of revenge. In his hidden fortress in the oceans of Venus, the Ash Lord lies in wait, plotting to crush the newborn democracy. And, at home, a young Red girl who’s lost everything to the Rising questions whether freedom was just another Gold lie. In a fearsome new world where Obsidian pirates roam the Belt, famine and genocide ravage Mars, and crime lords terrorise Luna, it’s time for Darrow and a cast of new characters from across the solar system to face down the chaos that revolution has unleashed.’

Spring Tide by Chris Beckett (January; Corvus)
‘Chris Beckett’s thought-provoking and wide-ranging collection of contemporary short stories is a joy to read, rich in detail and texture. From stories about first love, to a man who discovers a labyrinth beneath his house, to an angel left alone at the end of the universe, Beckett displays both incredible range and extraordinary subtlety as a writer. Every story is a world unto itself – each one beautifully realized and brilliantly imagined.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (February; Raven Books)
I have had the pleasure of reading this already and it is absolutely fantastic! Hugely original, clever and mindblowing. A candidate for book of the year already. ”Somebody’s going to be murdered at the ball tonight. It won’t appear to be a murder and so the murderer won’t be caught. Rectify that injustice and I’ll show you the way out.’ It is meant to be a celebration but it ends in tragedy. As fireworks explode overhead, Evelyn Hardcastle, the young and beautiful daughter of the house, is killed. But Evelyn will not die just once. Until Aiden – one of the guests summoned to Blackheath for the party – can solve her murder, the day will repeat itself, over and over again. Every time ending with the fateful pistol shot. The only way to break this cycle is to identify the killer. But each time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is determined to prevent him ever escaping Blackheath…’

The Memory Chamber by Holly Cave (February; Quercus)
‘True death is a thing of the past. Now you can spend the rest of eternity re-living your happiest memories: that first kiss, falling in love, the birth of your children, enjoyed on loop for ever and ever. Isobel is a Heaven Architect, and she helps dying people create afterlives from these memories. So when she falls for Jarek, one of her terminal – and married – clients, she knows that while she cannot save him, she can create the most beautiful of heavens, just for him. But when Jarek’s wife is found dead, Isobel uncovers a darker side of the world she works within, and she can trust no one with what she finds…’

The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (February; Headline)
I really enjoyed technothriller Tomorrow and Tomorrow and so this is one I’ll be looking out for. ‘1997 – When ex Navy Seal Patrick Mursult’s family are found murdered, he is the number one suspect. But NCIS Special Agent Shannon Moss isn’t convinced, particularly after Patrick apparently commits suicide. 2014 – Years after the brutal killings, while working undercover, Moss stumbles across a witness from the Mursult case who unwittingly tells her far more than she had at the time. Inspired by this retrospective progress, Moss determines to travel through time to a host of potential futures to track down the killer and close this cold case once and for all.’

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell
‘The warship Trouble Dog was built and bred for calculating violence, yet following a brutal war, she finds herself disgusted by conflict and her role in a possible war crime. Seeking to atone, she joins the House of Reclamation, an organisation dedicated to rescuing ships in distress. But, stripped of her weaponry and emptied of her officers, she struggles in the new role she’s chosen for herself. When a ship goes missing in a disputed system, Trouble Dog and her new crew of misfits and loners, captained by Sal Konstanz, an ex-captain of a medical frigate who once fought against Trouble Dog, are assigned to investigate and save whoever they can. Meanwhile, light years away, intelligence officer Ashton Childe is tasked with locating and saving the poet, Ona Sudak, who was aboard the missing ship, whatever the cost. In order to do this, he must reach out to the only person he considers a friend, even if he s not sure she can be trusted. What Childe doesn’t know is that Sudak is not the person she appears to be. Quickly, what appears to be a straightforward rescue mission turns into something far more dangerous, as Trouble Dog, Konstanz and Childe, find themselves at the centre of a potential new conflict that could engulf not just mankind but the entire galaxy. If she is to survive and save her crew, Trouble Dog is going to have to remember how to fight.’

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel (March; Michael Joseph)
I cannot wait for this – the third part of the Themis Files trilogy! ‘We always thought the biggest threat to humanity would come from the outside. We were wrong. As the human race picks up the pieces of destruction left behind, a new world order emerges. New alliances are formed. Old divisions are strengthened. And, with a power struggle fuelled by the threat of mutually assured destruction, nothing is certain. At a time when the world’s nations should have been coming together, they have never been more divided. With the human race teetering on the brink of total war, Rose, Vincent and Eva must choose sides. But doing the right thing might mean making the ultimate sacrifice.’

Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone (March; Gollancz)
I have thoroughly enjoyed this skin-crawling series so far and I can’t wait to see how it ends. ‘The world is on the brink of apocalypse. Zero Day has come. The only thing more terrifying than millions of spiders is the realization that those spiders work as one. But among the government, there is dissent: do we try to kill all of the spiders, or do we gamble on Professor Guyer’s theory that we need to kill only the queens? For President Stephanie Pilgrim, it’s an easy answer. She’s gone as far as she can-more than two dozen American cities hit with tactical nukes, the country torn asunder-and the only answer is to believe in Professor Guyer. Unfortunately, Ben Broussard and the military men who follow him don’t agree, and Pilgrim, Guyer, and the loyal members of the government have to flee, leaving the question: what’s more dangerous, the spiders or ourselves?’

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller (April; Orbit)
‘After the climate wars, a floating city was constructed in the Arctic Circle. Once a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, it has started to crumble under the weight of its own decay – crime and corruption have set in, a terrible new disease is coursing untreated through the population, and the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside deepest poverty are spawning unrest. Into this turmoil comes a strange new visitor – a woman accompanied by an orca and a chained polar bear. She disappears into the crowds looking for someone she lost thirty years ago, followed by whispers of a vanished people who could bond with animals. Her arrival draws together four people and sparks a chain of events that will lead to unprecedented acts of resistance.’

Before Mars by Emma Newman (April; Gollancz)
‘Hugo Award winner Emma Newman returns to the captivating Planetfall universe with a dark tale of a woman stationed on Mars who starts to have doubts about everything around her. After months of travel, Anna Kubrin finally arrives on Mars for her new job as a geologist and de facto artist in residence–and already she feels she is losing the connection with her husband and baby at home on Earth. In her room on the base, Anna finds a mysterious note, painted in her own hand, warning her not to trust the colony psychiatrist. A note she can’t remember painting. When she finds a footprint in a place that the colony AI claims has never been visited by humans, Anna begins to suspect that she is caught up in an elaborate corporate conspiracy. Or is she losing her grip on reality? Anna must find the truth, regardless of what horrors she might discover or what they might do to her mind.’

I Still Dream by James Smythe (April; Borough Press)
‘1997. 17-year-old Laura Bow has invented a rudimentary artificial intelligence, and named it Organon. At first it’s intended to be a sounding-board for her teenage frustrations, a surrogate best friend; but as she grows older, Organon grows with her. As the world becomes a very different place, technology changes the way we live, love and die; massive corporations develop rival intelligences to Laura’s, ones without safety barriers or morals; and Laura is forced to decide whether to share her creation with the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, she knows, its power could be abused. But what if Organon is the only thing that can stop humanity from hurting itself irreparably? I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.’

Time Was by Ian McDonald (April; Tor Books)
‘Ian McDonald weaves a love story across an endless expanse with his science fiction novella Time Was. A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it. In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found. Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.’

One Way by S.J. Morden (ebook in April; Gollancz)
The paperback is out in August but you might not want to wait… ‘A murder mystery set on the frozen red wastes of Mars. Eight astronauts. One killer. No way home. WE STAND AT THE DAWN OF A NEW ERA – Frank Kitteridge is serving life for murdering his son’s drug dealer. So when he’s offered a deal by Xenosystems Operations – the company that runs the prison – he takes it, even though it means swapping one life sentence for another. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME TO BE ALIVE – He’s been selected to help build the first permanent base on Mars. Unfortunately, his crewmates are just as guilty of their crimes as he is – and he’ll have to learn to trust them if they’re to succeed. THE FUTURE OF SPACE TRAVEL IS IN SAFE HANDS – As the convicts set to work on the frozen wastes of Mars, the accidents multiply. Until Frank begins to suspect they might not be accidents at all… XENOSYTEMS OPERATIONS: MAKING DREAMS A REALITY – There’s a murderer amongst them, and everyone’s a suspect.’

Xeelee: Redemption by Stephen Baxter (May; Gollancz)
Hooray! One of my very favourite authors. ‘Michael Poole finds himself in a very strange landscape… This is the centre of the Galaxy. And in a history without war with the humans, the Xeelee have had time to built an immense structure here. The Xeelee Belt has a radius ten thousand times Earth’s orbital distance. It is a light year in circumference. If it was set in the solar system it would be out in the Oort Cloud, among the comets – but circling the sun. If it was at rest it would have a surface area equivalent to about thirty billion Earths. But it is not at rest: it rotates at near lightspeed. And because of relativistic effects, distances are compressed for inhabitants of the Belt, and time drastically slowed. The purpose of the Belt is to preserve a community of Xeelee into the very far future, when they will be able to tap dark energy, a universe-spanning antigravity field, for their own purposes. But with time the Belt has attracted populations of lesser species, here for the immense surface area, the unending energy flows. Poole, Miriam and their party, having followed the Ghosts, must explore the artefact and survive encounters with its strange inhabitants – before Poole, at last, finds the Xeelee who led the destruction of Earth…’

The Soldier by Neal Asher (May; Macmillan)
‘A hidden corner of space is swarming with lethal alien technology, a danger to all sentient life. It’s guarded by Orlandine, who must keep it contained at any cost – as it has the power to destroy entire civilizations. She schemes from her state-of-the-art weapons station, with only an alien intelligence to share her vigil. But she doesn’t share everything with Dragon… Orlandine is hatching a plan to obliterate this technology, removing its threat forever. For some will do anything to exploit this ancient weaponry, created by a long-dead race called the Jain. This includes activating a Jain super-soldier, which may breach even Orlandine’s defences. Meanwhile, humanity and the alien prador empire keep a careful watch over this sector of space, as neither can allow the other to claim its power. However, things are about to change. The Jain might not be as dead as they seemed – and interstellar war is just a heartbeat away. The Soldier is the first novel in the Rise of the Jain series, by bestselling science fiction author Neal Asher.’

Hunted by G.X. Todd (May; Headline)
‘The birds are flying. The birds are flocking. The birds sense the red skies are coming. One man is driven by an inner voice that isn’t his – this Other is chewing at his sanity like a jackal with a bone and has one purpose. To find the voice hiding in the girl. She has no one to defend her now. But in an inn by the sea, a boy with no tongue and no voice gathers his warriors. Albus must find the girl, Lacey… before the Other does. And finish the work his sister Ruby began. Hunted is the second book in the acclaimed Voices series, where the battle between Good and Evil holds you in its vice-like grip.’

84K by Claire North (May; Orbit)
‘Theo Miller knows the value of human life – to the very last penny. Working in the Criminal Audit Office, he assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full. But when his ex-lover is killed, it’s different. This is one death he can’t let become merely an entry on a balance sheet. Because when the richest in the world are getting away with murder, sometimes the numbers just don’t add up.’

Next up is crime fiction and thrillers! You can then have a rest….


Persepolis Rising by James S.A. Corey

Orbit | 2017 (7 December) | 549p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Expanse is, with no doubt at all, my favourite current science fiction series. I’m not talking about the TV series but the books. I love them. I have been known to hug them. For years now they’ve been going straight to the top of my reading pile and Persepolis Rising, the seventh, was no different. I daresay you could read Persepolis Rising as a standalone if you really wanted to but you’d miss out on so much. Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, Bobbie…. I love these people. This review assumes you do too.

About thirty years have passed since the events of Babylon’s Ashes. The solar system and the hundreds of colonies on the other side of alien ring gates are enjoying an uneasy but much welcomed peace. Survival on the colonies isn’t easy. Many are just one supply vessel away from collapse. Controlling traffic through the gates is key. And so these days the business of government isn’t done by presidents and politicians as much as it is by trade companies – the Transport Union to be precise. It’s the job of Holden and his crew aboard the Rocinante to police their laws. But the past is about to come back to haunt them.

The distant colony of Laconia disappeared from the attention of humanity thirty years ago. It has been forgotten. But now it is back, with the power and technology to support its ambition, which is immense. It comes at a bad time for Holden and Naomi. They were hoping to settle down to a peaceful retirement, on some paradise shore with cocktails. But at times of crisis Holden has always been called upon and now is no different. The stakes though are extraordinarily high. Laconia may not be aware what it has unleashed.

Each of the Expanse novels is different – they have moved along the story of the protomolecule and the ring gates in the most original and varied way. Their perspective shifts from the intimate to the universal. Persepolis Rising is equally original. For the first time in the series we have shifted forwards by decades. Holden and his crew have changed and we have to catch up with each of them. And the novel does that wonderfully. As always with these books, chapters shift between characters – not just between the members of the Roci crew but also between the other influential personalities of the novel, including the intriguing Governor Singh from Laconia. We are shown all sides and opinions. But just when we become comfortable with certain characters, we’re given a shock.

But the big strength of this novel, as with the others, is the portrayal of the Roci crew. The authors treat our heroes with great warmth and care. I love the crews aboard the Enterprise, Voyager and Discovery, and I love the crew of the Rocinante every bit as much. And now they’re all that little bit older. This adds something new. Some other well loved characters also make cameo appearances, I’m very pleased to say!

The plot of these novels has come a long way since the outstanding Leviathan Wakes. The plot here is deliciously complex and deep. There are hints of something ominous. The mystery surrounding the creators of the protomolecule and those other aliens who wiped them out builds. Every time I read one of these novels I’m left intensely anticipating the next book in the series. There are answers out there somewhere. The books are so satisfying to read while they also tantalise. I love this intensity as much as I love the worldbuilding, which is fabulous. Much of the action here is set aboard a space station and we’re left in no doubt as to what it’s like to live on it – cramped, smelly, dangerous, isolated, vibrant, exciting. The action sequences are as thrilling as ever.

Persepolis Rising is a superb addition to this fantastic series. It’s an immersive reading experience, particularly for those with any kind of affection for Holden and his crew. I find it incredible that the two authors who combine to make James S.A. Corey can maintain this momentum and originality year after year but they do. Likewise the quality of the writing is always tremendously high. Persepolis Rising is one of the very best of the series. It marks a new beginning in some ways, due to the years that have passed, but it points clearly ahead and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Other reviews
Leviathan Wakes (Expanse 1)
Caliban’s War (Expanse 2)
Cibola Burn (Expanse 4)
Nemesis Games (Expanse 5)
Babylon’s Ashes (Expanse 6)

Year One by Nora Roberts

Piatkus | 2017 (5 December) | 419p | Review copy | Buy the book

Year One by Nora RobertsWhen Ross MacLeod shoots a pheasant dead and its body falls to the ground in the centre of an ancient stone circle in Dumfries in Scotland, he has no way of knowing that he has sealed the fate of not just himself but of billions of people around the world. He and his brother and cousin are with their wives in a farmhouse miles from their homes in New York City, celebrating the New Year in fine and traditional fashion. But when Ross and Angie fly home to the States they carry with them an illness that the world will soon know as the Doom. It is merciless in its greed and ferocity.

But not everybody dies. As the world collapses around them, a few live on and they are helped in their survival by new and strange abilities. Some when they touch another person can sense their future, some can fly, some can move objects, some can create power and light. But there are others who have the power of darkness. Magic has returned to the land and with it hope but also danger.

Year One is a bewitching novel in so many ways. On one level it is a very good apocalyptic tale and, even though it is caused by disease, as one character declares, this is no zombie apocalypse. Phew! The chapters that describe the world’s descent into this chaos of death and fear are superb. It’s not only engrossing, it’s also emotional. We meet a great many characters in this novel and all of them have a tale of tragedy to tell. Surviving an apocalypse is as hard as succumbing to it.

There is a strong magic element and I thought that this might be a hurdle I couldn’t overcome. I’m not a reader of fantasy and I particularly don’t read novels about magic, fairies and elves. But it’s integrated so well into what feels like reality that I found myself accepting every word of it. The magic doesn’t take over and generally it feels like another symptom of the disease and not otherworldly. Nevertheless there is something unworldly here but I loved how it’s done. It’s also fascinating to listen in to the discussions on how this came about. While one person might argue that the rest of the population were wiped out as a kind of cleansing and these new superhuman beings were born as a result, another believes that these new superhuman beings have been created as a source of hope for the continued survival of humanity. This element of hope is such a critical part of the mood of Year One. There is a sense that mankind is inherently good while it is clear that a few human beings are wrapped in sin.

I love the cast of Year One. We follow several small groups of people as they make their way to a safe place in the United States. The journeys are arduous, harrowing and packed with adventure. They’re so compelling. You have to keep your wits about you to remember who is in which group but so many of these people are three-dimensional with an interesting tale to tell. And the relationships between them are enthralling and moving.

Year One is the first novel in a new series – Chronicles of the One – and this did lead to my one issue with the novel. The ending, without giving anything away, wasn’t entirely satisfactory due to the number of loose ends that are left untied, the people that we leave in the lurch, as the focus narrows to follow just one person. I’m hoping that the answers will be provided in the next novel in the series. I’m so desperate to know.

But, above all else, Year One is an engrossing and original apocalyptic vision that takes an intriguing look into the future of a new form of humanity. I haven’t read any Nora Roberts’ novels before and I understand that this one is a little different from her usual fare. It certainly has me hooked.

Artemis by Andy Weir

Ebury/Del Rey | 2017 (14 November) | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book

Artemis by Andy WeirLife isn’t so easy for the poor in Artemis – the Moon’s one city. While the rich inhabitants and the excited tourists enjoy a pleasuredome of delights and privilege (complete with organised tours of the Apollo XI landing site), those who serve them in some way are lucky if they live in a room large enough to stand up in. Jazz Bashara, who’s lived on the Moon since she was six years old, doesn’t. She scrapes a living as a porter, delivering items from the cargo and tourist ships that regularly arrive from Earth, and supplementing that income with a good old-fashioned activity – smuggling.

Jazz has her dreams and to fulfil them she needs lots of ‘slugs’ (or money). One day one of her reliable wealthy clients offers Jazz the job of a lifetime. It goes beyond smuggling. It could get her into serious trouble, perhaps even deported to her family’s original home in Saudi Arabia, but the money sings. Jazz can’t say no. It’s not long before she wishes she had.

Artemis is the highly anticipated second novel by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. The wonderful and original The Martian is a very hard act to follow and the author has his work cut out. In some ways he pulls it off – the world building is fantastic. Just as he had made us experience the hostile surface of Mars, now we see what life could be like perched on the Moon’s surface in enclosed bubble domed cities, underground, in spacesuits, in tunnels and in its bars. It’s a claustrophobic and dangerous world (Moon dust can slowly kill) but it’s also exotic and beautiful – and it has a strong pride in its lunar history.

It isn’t just the landscape and environment that are visualised so powerfully – the society is also made real, complex and intimidating. Politics, economics, greed, science, innovation and inequality all play their part in shaping life in Artemis. While there isn’t much violence, there’s a sense that it may only be a matter of time. Once the shine has worn off.

Jazz is surrounded by a host of interesting characters, all with their own conflicts, hidden feelings and motivations, and many, but by no means all, are drawn towards Jazz. I really enjoyed some of these characters and if anything I wished we learned more about them. Jazz, however, I didn’t get along with so well. She’s supposed to be 26 years old but you wouldn’t know it unless you were told. She appeared to me as a stereotype of how a man might think a teenage girl might think and behave. This sounds harsh but I was really disappointed in her character and in the way she was written. Fortunately, the others around her gave me more to like.

My biggest issue with Artemis, though, is with its dialogue. At times I literally cringed at the juvenile squirmy jokes which are constant. The long-running joke about testing a condom wears thin (in a manner of speaking) as well. There’s a lot of talk about sex while nobody actually has it. Perhaps it’s to remind us that these young people are adults instead of the teens you’d assume they are. None of this dialogue seems realistic for a 26-year-old woman. A few characters – such as the police officer Rudy – speak with maturity but when they do they sound like parents chiding a child.

It’s difficult not to compare Artemis with The Martian, especially as I loved The Martian so much. As I say, there are aspects of Artemis that I really enjoyed, particularly with the visualisation of its setting and the composition of its society and rules, but, as a whole, I was disappointed by Artemis not least because I had such high and possibly unrealistic hopes. Those hopes, though, will carry me on to his next novel. I must say, though, that the cover of Artemis is spectacular!

Other review
The Martian

Places in the Darkness by Chris Brookmyre

Orbit | 2017 (9 November) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Places in the Darkness by Chris BrookmyreCiudad de Cielo (CdC) is the City in the Sky, humanity’s gateway to the stars – or at least that is the intention. Located many thousands of kilometres above Earth, CdC is a space station comprising two enormous Wheels that whirl around a central trunk, each Wheel the home to thousands of men and women. Their mission is to create and construct the first of the generation starships that will carry mankind to a new home. There are no children. Everyone on CdC has a place and a purpose, an inspiration, and so there is no serious crime. That is the official line.

In reality CdC is also known to its inhabitants as Seedee, a fitting name indeed. While the prosperous enjoy comfort and space in Wheel Two, the rest are squeezed into Wheel One and life thrives behind doors, in bars, clubs, brothels, gambling dens, gardens of sin. Contraband alcohol is the currency of choice and competition for the good stuff is fierce. Two club-owning gangsters are fighting a turf war but, when one of their men is murdered horribly, the authorities are most concerned that news of it doesn’t reach Earth. Wheel One is policed by the Seguridad and Nicola Freeman is one of their sergeants. She’s the perfect choice to investigate the murder, not because she’s a fine detective but because, if there’s a pie, you can be sure Nikki Fixx has got her finger in it. Unfortunately, Nikki has been given a partner, a young and new arrival to CdC, Jessica Cho, a formal observer from Earth’s Federation of National Governments and a walking rule book. And nothing at all as she seems.

Chris Brookmyre is a familiar name in crime fiction for his Jack Parlabane novels (I loved Black Widow). Now he looks to the future and the claustrophobic, dangerous and exhilarating space station of CdC. As soon as I heard about Places in the Darkness I was desperate to read it. Its premise is fantastic. But what I discovered in these pages is something even better than that.

The worldbuilding in Places in the Darkness is jaw droppingly brilliant. It is immediately striking, vivid, dark, chaotic but also strangely appealing. And this is all summed up by the character of Nikki Fixx. She is dangerous to know, undoubtedly hated by many for good reason, corrupt, venal and at times extremely unpleasant. But we’re never entirely allowed to believe the worst, even when we watch her bulldoze her way through other people’s lives. Watching Nikki and watching the underworld of Seedee get through each one of its strange days is compelling. It’s violent and thirsty, sex-driven and greedy. But somehow it works. Until the murder happens and it’s soon clear that this odd world is about to be turned upside down.

The character of Nikki is offset by Jessica and, as the novel went on, I began to like her just as much as Nikki. This is helped by the pacey, present-tense narrative shifting between the two. Sometimes events overlap slightly as we see them from both perspectives. We’re not let into all the secrets by any means – and there are an awful lot of those. It’s as if we’re slowly allowed into Nikki’s confidence just as we’re slowly acquainted with Jessica.

The pace builds and before you know it we’re aboard a runaway train. Places in the Darkness is tremendously exciting. Full of surprises, deadly chases and dark conspiracies, all taking place in the contrasting shadows and artificial light of Ciudad de Cielo. When I reached the end I was surprised at how far this book had taken me. It’s not a straightforward journey but it is most certainly thrilling. This is one of the best science fiction crime novels I’ve read in a long time – with the best of characters, story and mood – and I can only hope that Chris Brookmyre takes us into orbit or beyond again.

Other review

Black Widow

Austral by Paul McAuley

Gollancz | 2017 (19 October) | 276p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Austral by Paul McAuleyAustral is a husky, a genetically-edited person, moulded to fit to life in the extreme environment of the Antarctic – bigger, faster, stronger than others who view her and those like her with hostility and fear. Austral is also the child of ecopoets, the engineers who have reworked land, plants and animals to survive. The planet has warmed and the northern islands and coasts of Antarctica have been transformed by forests and cities. The focus of the world has shifted southwards.

There are few jobs for huskies like Austral. She is a guard in a prison, far from settlement, who spends her days leading teams of prisoners outside to build and construct. But at this edge of the world, the distinction between prisoner and guard is blurred, most particularly between Austral and her prison’s most dangerous criminal Keever. But the arrival of an influential politician and his daughter throws the prison into turmoil, offering opportunities, dangers and the chance of escape.

Austral is a beautifully written novel, which portrays in stark and stunning terms the new frontier of Antarctica. It’s warming up but not fast enough for Austral. Much of the novel is a pursuit across this country and it couldn’t be more harsh. The adventure that Austral undergoes is so well evoked. It feels dangerous. It’s full of traps, barriers and extreme cold. The story is told by Austral as if she were dictating it and this gives us the humanity of someone who is regarded as less than human. It also internalises her conflict.

Throughout the novel we’re presented with interludes, passages which give us something of Austral’s past – and therefore revealing more about the magical concept of the ecopoets – and also another fairytale strand. I could have done without the latter – it was too much of a distraction. But I did enjoy the look into the past.

Austral tells a disturbing story – it’s grim, cold and at times very sad. There were bits that I found upsetting. But it is warmed by the characters of Austral and also Kamilah, another memorable personality. And they contrast with the brutes. But, for me, the strength of the novel isn’t in the characters or even in the story – I couldn’t help preserving some detachment from both – but in the astonishing worldbuilding. I loved the mix of Antarctica as it always has been and as it is being made, complete with mammoths.

On a minor point, I read a great many science fiction series and trilogies. It made such a change – and a pleasant one, too – to read a novel that is complete in itself. Even if this is a world to which Paul McAuley returns in the future, Austral is whole. And what a gorgeous cover!

Other review
Something Coming Through

America City by Chris Beckett

Corvus | 2017 (2 November) | 357p | Review copy | Buy the book

America City by Chris BeckettOne hundred years or so from now, the world is suffering the effects of climate change and insular politics. After years of observing crises in other countries, to whom their borders are closed, it’s now the turn of America to suffer. The East coast is bombarded by devastating superstorms while the South and Southwest have been reduced to dustbowls. A mass migration north by so-called dusties and barreduras is underway and the north is hardly opening its arms in welcome. There is no bigger subject for debate in American politics and one man is grabbing the headlines – Senator Steve Slaymaker. The other parties scramble but Slaymaker’s grandiose schemes for resettlement provide the perfect ammunition for his campaign for the White House. And by his side is PR supremo Holly, a woman with principles. How far is she prepared to go to compromise them?

America City presents a realistic and really rather horrifying portrait of the near future – one that can be envisioned very easily from the state of things we face today. We’re told that America has endured several wars over the decades since the Tyranny. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know what that was all about. But, although the focus is on America, we’re given glimpses of elsewhere and they’re just as terrifying. The coast of Britain we learn is guarded by cannon. America is relatively prosperous and isolationist. Its neighbours tremble.

This is science fiction, despite its message, and it is full of very enjoyable futuristic technology – for instance, cars that drive themselves, dirigibles (drigs), and an elaborate ‘internet’ that is transmitted through one’s crystal (perfect for political pollsters). But there have also been big social changes. America has a new class system and its ruling classes are the elite delicados and nobody embodies this more than Holly and her writer-husband, Rick. Delicados are privileged. They don’t have to make the sacrifices that they preach and they can afford to be tolerant and generous. The poor and the homeless can’t. Senator Slaymaker has the valuable ability to straddle these classes. But how much of it is manufactured by Holly?

America City is a beautifully-written novel, as you’d expect from Chris Beckett, the author of that most eloquent and gorgeous novel Dark Eden. Its language is creative, visual and still light. As demonstrated so cleverly in Dark Eden and its successors, Beckett is a master of language and this is put to good use again here. Language and what people say, as opposed to what they mean, is a strong theme in America City. It’s almost a game. But not for the homeless and the landless.

The novel squeezes its focus for much of the time to a small group of people, representing each of the classes that Slaymaker and Holly must aim to persuade. We move between them. But the heart of the novel lies with Holly and Richard and their small group of friends. It’s as if Holly’s internal debate has been externalised. The extraordinary and charismatic figure of Slaymaker shadows over them all.

America City presents such an engrossing portrait of America’s potential future environmental challenges and political debate. There is an element of preaching going on here and, as one of the converted, there was a risk of it going on too much but this is largely prevented by the novel’s clever mix of quiet personal drama and national catastrophe. It’s all so real and so possible. I did find it a little depressing. I can’t imagine how I wouldn’t. But I also found it extremely difficult to put it down and I was hooked by the quality of its language. Above all else, this is a terrifying depiction of a future that may be inevitable if we carry on as we are. It’s not overly dramatic and that’s what makes it all the more frightening – it happens piece by piece until the disasters become another part of life while many of the world’s animal and plant species disappear one by one.

America City certainly made me think – and worry – but it also reminded me what a superb writer Chris Beckett is and how imaginative is his use of language, how vivid his vision.

Other reviews
Dark Eden
Mother of Eden
Daughter of Eden