The best recent science fiction and fantasy – reviews roundup
Appliance by JO Morgan (Vintage, £16.99)
The first work of prose fiction by the award-winning poet whose previous book, The Martian’s Regress, revelled in science fictional tropes, this is a collection of thematically linked short stories about the development of a matter transmitter from a cabinet resembling a refrigerator into a vast network of stations transporting not only goods but people all over the world. The approach is almost primitive, focusing on a single idea which is seldom dramatised, only discussed. But the very ordinariness of the characters and their conversations has a demystifying effect: in this context transporters could as well be aeroplanes or the internet. The notion of progress, and where new technologies may take us, is a consistent concern in SF, whether utopian or dystopian. Morgan takes neither approach as he gradually builds a picture of the ease and speed with which some people embrace new ways of living, while others, regardless of objections, eventually have it forced upon them: living off-grid is a fantasy few can afford.
Book of Night by Holly Black (Cornerstone, £16.99)
Charlie Hall wants to go straight, but conning people, uncovering secrets and stealing valuable books are what she’s good at – so when she hears that the Liber Noctem, a legendary book of spells, has gone missing, she’s drawn back into the dangerous world of shadow-magic. In her first novel for adults, the bestselling children’s fantasy author has created an original, convincing world in which a subculture of magicians known as “gloamists” work their sorcery by drawing on the power of shadows – their own, or those of others. Shadows can provide power or take it, may be shaped, lost or stolen. It’s a wonderful invention, well worked out and original, yet striking a profound mythic note, the way the best fantasies can. Troubled, smart bad-girl Charlie is a believable, sympathetic character. With a gripping, perfectly paced story and a killer ending, this dark fantasy feels like an instant classic.
The Pharmacist by Rachelle Atalla (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99)
The setting for this compelling debut novel is a bunker where 0.2% of a UK city’s population has survived for more than half a year. The titular pharmacist, Wolfe, gives no details about the nuclear war that must have sent them underground. She tells herself she is lucky to have a place inside, and an occupation. The others are mostly politicians, bankers and wealthy businessmen close to “the leader”, and she’s one of the few there who had to leave her family behind. In an unexpected meeting with the leader in his heavily guarded lair, she notes he still has access to art and other prohibited luxuries. The people who work for him also benefit, and when he asks her to report on her neighbours she barely hesitates. But when his demands escalate, how far from morality will self-interest take her? Reminiscent of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this unsettling story is a nightmare for our times of end-of-the-world prepping, increased nuclear insecurity and political inequality.
Beautiful Star by Yukio Mishima (Penguin, £12.99)
Mishima was one of the most famous Japanese writers of the 20th century, yet this 1962 novel has not been published in English before now – probably reflecting the low esteem in which science fiction was held in literary circles. The story concerns a family whose lives revolve around flying saucer sightings and the belief that each family member came from other planets, before uniting on Earth to try to save humanity from nuclear destruction. Eventually they meet other aliens who think humans would be better off dead. Mishima had a deep interest in UFOs, and belonged to the Japan Flying Saucer Research Association, an organisation whose declared ultimate goal was world peace. This is a strange, rather awkward novel that moves from vividly described scenes of ordinary human life and the beauties of the natural world to arguments about human nature and whether peace is possible this side of death.
Eversion by Alastair Reynolds (Orion, £20)
Reynolds is best known as an author of hard science-based space operas, yet his latest novel begins on board a ship sailing up the coastline of Norway in the early 19th century. The mystery deepens as the same group of people, on a different vessel with the same name, reappear in different places and times, always seeking out the same mysterious edifice. It would be unfair to reveal more details of this wonderfully entertaining puzzle wrapped inside an adventure story, which turns out to be science fictional after all. A clever diversion from a writer who is always worth reading.