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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

THE WOLF ROAD by Beth Lewis

THE WOLF ROAD - Beth Lewis THE WOLF ROAD

Beth Lewis (bethlewis.co.uk)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£12.99

At the age of seven, a young girl finds herself lost in the vast forests of British Columbia. Stumbling across a shack, she attempts to steal some jerky and finds herself staring down the barrel of a gun. The gun belongs to a man she comes to know as Trapper, a man who teaches her everything she needs to know to survive in this harsh wilderness, a man she comes to think of as her father. When she is seventeen, Elka sees a Wanted poster in the local town, a charcoal drawing of a man called Kreagar Hallet, a man who looks uncannily like the one with whom she has lived for the past ten years. When she bumps into Magistrate Jennifer Lyon and discovers the horrific nature of Hallet’s crimes, Elka flees north, her only plan to find her parents, who left her as a young child, and to outrun Hallet and Lyon in the process.

Beth Lewis’ debut novel, The Wolf Road has, from its opening pages, the feel of an old-fashioned Western, but it isn’t long before we understand the real setting: this is British Columbia, or BeeCee, in a future where wars have escalated to the point where nuclear weapons have been employed, and the world’s population all but wiped out in an event that is remembered as the Damn Stupid. But The Wolf Road is a story that could have taken place in any wilderness, at any time past or future; it’s a coming-of-age story wrapped up in a tale of survival against the odds, a story of family and identity. It’s a story with a huge heart in the form of its protagonist, Elka.

Though we find ourselves looking at this new world through Elka’s eyes, we know very little about her, mainly because she knows very little about herself. She has no idea what her real name is – Elka is the name bestowed upon her by Trapper when he took her under his wing – nor where she came from. She remembers her grandmother, and a letter from her parents which will ultimately become an obsession, a map that will lead her north in search of them and the fortune she is certain they have found. Lewis takes great care in building her central character up, and ensuring she is someone with whom the reader can identify, despite the gulf that will inevitably separate us from her. Her voice is truly distinctive, and it doesn’t take long for us to fall into the rhythms of her speech, or her little quirks; coupled with her insights and philosophies, her voice is what makes Elka stand out, and hang around in the reader’s mind long after the story is done. (Of course, it helps that she usually speaks sense:

Smell a’ bacon.

Ain’t nothing in this world like it. Salt-cured, sliced thick, line a’ juicy fat crisping up in the pan. Anyone what tells you they don’t like bacon is either stupid or lying. Either way that ain’t no one you can trust.

) It is difficult to read The Wolf Road and not think of Mattie Ross, the precocious young girl at the heart of Charles Portis’ True Grit; it’s a comparison that sits well: while Elka has no Rooster Cogburn to help her on her way, she has the same determination and strength of spirit as her predecessor.

As Elka’s journey north continues, Kreagar Hallet hot on her heels and Jennifer Lyon seemingly always one step ahead, she encounters a cast of characters that would strike fear into the strongest heart. There comes a point where the reader prays for the author to give this young girl a break, to allow her to run into someone without evil or nefarious intentions. With the exception of Penelope, whom Elka rescues from people traffickers, and who accompanies her north, the inhabitants of this post-apocalyptic world are a bitter and hardened lot, each out for their own best interests.

At the core of Elka’s story is the realisation of who her protector is, and more importantly what he is. There are questions of Elka’s complicity in his crimes or whether she understood what he was doing and tried to hide it from herself. The reader has a fair idea of some of it from early in the proceedings when we catch a brief glimpse of Missy. But it isn’t until the novel is drawing to a close that we understand the full extent of his evil, and of the terrible things Elka has spent so long trying to forget. With five simple words, Lewis turns what we think we knew on its head and leaves us trying to pick up the pieces – not to mention our jaw – before we go any further. It’s a rare thing for me to become so engrossed in a story that a single sentence can feel like a punch in the gut, but Beth Lewis pulls it off admirably in one of the finest books I’ve read in a long time.

The Wolf Road is a novel that ignores genre boundaries in order to be the best story it can be. Beth Lewis writes with a confidence and sense of control that belies her debut novelist status. Through the characters, the language, the geography, the brief world history, she has constructed a complex and satisfying story that is at once thriller and horror, Western and crime drama, speculative fiction and character study. The result is so much more than the sum of all these components: an engrossing story built around a unique and memorable protagonist, a standout piece in a year filled with big-name releases. Get on at the ground floor – you’ll be hearing a lot about Beth Lewis in the coming months and years, so take the time to enjoy that sense that you’ve discovered The Next Big Thing before everyone else.

THE CITY OF MIRRORS by Justin Cronin

The City of Mirrors - Justin Cronin THE CITY OF MIRRORS

Justin Cronin (enterthepassage.com)

Orion Books (www.orionbooks.co.uk)

£20.00

The Twelve have been defeated and with them, the hordes of virals that sprung from their bloodlines. Amy is gone and Alicia has fled into the wilderness, her infection forcing her to seek isolation. As the years pass, the people of Kerrville grow complacent: they are safe, the virals no longer a threat and they begin to re-inhabit the country, leaving the walls of the city behind for the open country and the chance of a normal life. But Zero, the creature who was once a man named Timothy Fanning, has been biding his time, waiting for the right moment, that moment when the remains of humanity have forgotten to fear the virals, assuring his victory. But the survivors of First Colony have long memories, big dreams and a secret weapon that could well tip the balance in their favour in the epic war that looms on the horizon.

It is almost four years since the second volume of Justin Cronin’s Passage Trilogy, The Twelve, left us on a cliff-hanger. The final volume, The City of Mirrors, picks up eight months after those events, but dwells there only briefly before transporting us over twenty years into the future to a world that is much changed from the one we saw during the earlier volumes. Our band of heroes – the survivors of First Colony and those they picked up along the way – have separated over the years each going their own way, doing their best to find their own place in this new and seemingly viral-free world. Virals haven’t been spotted since the liberation of Homeland and the destruction of The Twelve and, as a result, humanity have largely forgotten their fears and begin to spread throughout the land, shunning the protective city walls that they believe they no longer need.

[Behind every great hatred is a love story.]

In some ways The City of Mirrors is about tying off any loose ends, answering any lingering questions that might remain from The Passage and The Twelve. Foremost of these, of course, is the story behind Timothy Fanning, the first man to be infected by the virus, and who we have therefore known as Zero throughout the series. While The Twelve – the first twelve people that Fanning infected, rapists and murderers all – have been destroyed, Fanning still lives, spending his time in the empty halls of Grand Central Station, reliving the moment of his heartbreak – the catalyst for his eventual infection – again and again for over a century. And it is, as you might expect, a love story, the tale of forbidden love that comes to a sudden and bitter end, driving Timothy Fanning first to murder, and then to the Bolivian jungle where his fate awaited. It’s not the first time in the series that Cronin has taken us inside the head of one of the virals, nor even the first time that we’ve been inside the head of Zero himself, but this visit presents the reader with an interesting challenge even while it helps us to understand the mind-set of this creature who has brought the world to its knees: Cronin presents the human Fanning and, in the process of laying out his tale, makes him a sympathetic and even likeable person, then leaves us to reconcile this before picture with the reality of the after that has driven much of the trilogy’s storyline.

In a very revealing moment that can only be described as soul-destroying, Cronin points to the banality of the destruction of humanity as we now know it, the single lynchpin that defined the moment between life and destruction, and leaves the reader with the overpowering sense that it really is as simple as all that.

[Not an hour would have gone by, her body grown cold in my embrace, before I would have followed her from this world. That, too, was part of my design.]

The City of Mirrors is something of a different beast from the two preceding volumes. For much of its duration, the virals are missing from the storyline and what the characters seem to be seeing – though as readers we know very differently – is a life of comparative normality stretching ahead of them. It’s a testament to Cronin’s skill as a storyteller that he can keep the reader’s interest even while not very much is happening: the characters have grown older and seemingly wiser, though not all content with their lot. While Peter Jaxon – in one of the two lives he seems to be living – is now the president of the Texas Republic and is happy to let people move outside the walls of its capital, Kerrville, Michael Fisher is convinced that there is still trouble ahead and has found a container ship that he is attempting to make seaworthy in order to get himself and as many people as he can recruit off the continent, convinced that the supposed barrier erected around the country’s waters is nothing more than a legend designed to contain the people in times when the technology was still reliable.

As these two individual strands, and the strands of a half-dozen other characters, converge and separate only to converge again at some later point, Cronin teases the reader with hints of what is still to come. Around the halfway point, he catches us unawares, and brings the horror of what the virals are in a single, innocent-seeming sentence:

[As he knelt to look, he heard a high-pitched clicking above his head.]

That clicking is a sound that haunts anyone who has read the earlier volumes and when we hear it here, it comes with a rush of adrenaline and puts us on our guard.

No-one will be disappointed with the epic battle to which the story is inevitably building, but it is the book’s final section that touches the reader the most, and ends the trilogy in some considerable style. From the opening pages of The Passage, we have seen many extracts from “The Book of Twelves” and references to “the Third Global Conference on the North American Quarantine Period”. As the trilogy comes to a close, Cronin takes us to the Indo-Australian Republic and introduces us to some of the attendees of the conference, culminating in a beautiful moment that gives the ultimate closure to the story of The Girl From Nowhere and the people who loved her. It is only after the fact that we can stop to realise just how much of the story Cronin must have planned in advance and of the work involved in making everything hang together.

Without a doubt the best of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors provides a satisfying conclusion to the story started over six years ago. I can almost guarantee that readers will come away from this volume with an intense desire to go back to the start and read through to the end. It’s a project I will be undertaking myself in the near future. Justin Cronin is a master storyteller and his post-apocalyptic vision stands alongside the genre’s finest. With The City of Mirrors, a wonderful story in its own right, he also shows an ability to deliver on the promises he made in earlier volumes. An engrossing plot coupled with characters who are at once familiar and strangely changed – whether because of the four years that have passed in real time since we last met them, or because of the twenty years that have passed in the course of the narrative it is difficult to say – brings a fitting close to one of the best pieces of horror fiction produced in the past decade. This is hopefully not the last the genre has heard of Justin Cronin. I can’t help but recommend this – and the preceding two volumes of what can only be described as his masterpiece – unreservedly.

LONG DARK DUSK by JP Smythe

LONG DARK DUSK - JP Smythe LONG DARK DUSK (Book 2 of the Australia Trilogy)

JP Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

Months after the events that brought her and her companions to Earth, Chan Aitch is living in a shanty town built against the inner surface of the wall that now surrounds Washington, D.C. She has, so far, managed to escape detection and recapture and performs odd-jobs for the local fixer, Alala. Fascinated by her new home, Chan has spent some time coming to grips with the planet’s history and, through her trips to the city’s museums, has met Ziegler, an historian and writer for whom Chan is a gold-mine of information. Chan herself has one goal: to discover where the government have taken Mae, the young girl whom she took under her wing in the final days of their time on Australia, to rescue her and to take her somewhere where they will never be found. But this is a strange new world, and she has no access to anything like the resources she could count on aboard Australia. Who, if anyone, can she trust? And where, on the vastness of the continent, should she start?

The middle book of a planned trilogy can often be a strange beast: the set-up has been done in book one, while the big payoff is unlikely to happen before book three. So there are no expectations on the reader’s part when it comes to book two, and each writer has his or her own take, or each story demands a different approach to this central volume. Regular visitors to Reader Dad will have noted my on-again-off-again relationship with the books of JP (James) Smythe, so it should come as no surprise when I say that Long Dark Dusk didn’t really work for me, despite how I felt about Way Down Dark and how excited I still am about Dark Made Dawn.

Picking up several months after Chan’s arrival on Earth, Long Dark Dusk finds her living in the walled city that was once Washington, D.C. This is a much different Earth than the one we live on: environmental disaster has left the planet a dry, hot husk of its former self, air-conditioned, walled cities the only refuge for the relatively small number of humans who have managed to survive the harsh conditions. Through Chan’s eyes, and her interest in where she originally came from, and of why her ancestors wound up in space, Smythe manages to give us a potted history of the apocalypse and the resulting martial and political environment under which the survivors exist.

Chan is driven by a single objective: to find and rescue Mae, and disappear somewhere that they will not be found. Between the knowledge and resources of the mysterious Alala and the cagey Ziegler, she feels she is well on her way to finding the girl, when a double-cross lands her in a facility in the middle of nowhere for “re-programming”. It is this central section of the book that I have problems with. As the author explores many of the themes that his earlier adult novel, The Machine, explored – identity and memory; how one informs the other – the pace of the novel comes to an almost-complete standstill. (You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed The Machine – that’s because I didn’t like it, for various reasons.) It’s undeniably beautifully written, and Smythe uses a number of tricks to distance us from Chan (while still keeping us inside her head), as she becomes distanced from herself, and from the world around her. It’s impossible not to be impressed – notice, for example, the lack of direct speech from Chan – but it feels less like an integral part of the story (I have since been assured by the author that it is) than the output of a challenge the author has set for himself.

As the book moves towards its climax, the pace picks up once again, and Chan finds herself forming a most unlikely alliance that will have repercussions for what is still to come. The story finishes on a high point, which leaves the reader ready for the trilogy’s final volume, next year’s Dark Made Dawn. There are still many unanswered questions, and plenty of action and excitement on the horizon.

As with all of Smythe’s books, Long Dark Dusk is about setting your expectations as a reader. Anyone picking this up expecting more of the same as what we saw in Way Down Dark will, like me, come away somewhat disappointed and, to be honest, I do think that’s what caused most of my problems with the book: faulty expectations. As always, it’s wonderfully written and, aside from the central section, a compelling and often gripping story. Chan continues to be a wonderful narrator, a well-drawn mix of innocence and violence that will keep the reader coming back for more. A solid middle book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but which keeps us interested enough that we’ll come back for the payoff. Not the best of Smythe’s work, but by no means the worst.

THE FIREMAN by Joe Hill

THE FIREMAN - Joe Hill THE FIREMAN

Joe Hill (www.joehillfiction.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£20.00

Harper Grayson is working as a school nurse when the world ends. Draco Incendia Trychophyton, better known as Dragonscale, is a spore that infects that vast majority of people with whom it comes into contact – the symptoms are a beautiful tattoo-like patterning of the skin and an almost-certain chance of spontaneous combustion. Within six months Harper is carrying both the virus and a baby, and is running for her life from her husband who, in a misguided attempt to save her from the horrible end guaranteed by the ‘scale, is trying to kill her. Harper is rescued by an unlikely couple – a teenage girl in a Captain America mask and an Englishman in a fireman’s outfit – and taken to Camp Wyndham, a nearby summer resort now serving as home for infected people like her, under the watchful eye of “Father” Tom Storey.

Intrigued by the fireman, who has an uncanny ability to control the Dragonscale fire, Harper joins the camp as their resident medical expert, and quickly becomes engrossed in their search for the almost-mythical island of 80’s television star, Martha Quinn, which promises to be paradise for those with the ‘scale. But things are far from as perfect at Camp Wyndham as they appear on the surface, and as tensions rise, Harper finds that she is more prisoner than resident, and that the eye of suspicion is rarely far away when “Mother” Carol and ex-policeman Ben Patchett put their heads together.

From the book’s size alone, it’s easy to tell that Joe Hill’s latest foray into the weird, wide world is massive in both scope and ambition. A glimpse at the apocalypse, and the world it leaves behind, The Fireman is, without doubt, his most ambitious novel yet, and is anchored in reality, to a large degree, by the large of cast of characters that bring the story to life. It’s sure to be compared favourably with The Stand (more on this later), and it is, without doubt, a comparison that is well-deserved. Mining from a rich vein of popular culture – everything from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to The Walking Dead and all points in between – Hill has produced a novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers, the breakout novel that is sure to expose his name – and his work – to more than the relatively small pool of genre readers who, up until now, have been his core audience.

Told from the point of view of Harper Grayson (who later reverts to her maiden name Willowes), the novel takes us through the end of the world as we would fully expect to witness it ourselves: on television, the facts distorted by whichever political lens is used by the channel in question to view the world.

FOX said the dragon had been set loose by ISIS, using spores that had been invented by the Russians in the 1980s. MSNBC said sources indicated the ‘scale might’ve been created by engineers at Halliburton and stolen by cult Christian types fixated on the Book of Revelation. CNN reported both sides.

For the duration of the novel, Harper becomes the centre of our world, and her struggle to see her child safely born is one in which we become completely invested. Her mannerisms are informed, in many ways, by the characters played by Julie Andrews in the likes of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, and, in fact, the fireman’s English character provides the perfect Bert-like foil to Harper’s Mary Poppins as their relationship develops. Harper’s contraction of the virus is the first sign that there is more to Dragonscale than we might have been led to believe; rather than the certain death that, say, a zombie bite might bring, Hill introduces the burning hope – hope because Harper has become such an important part of our lives – that the virus is survivable.

This is reinforced by the residents of Camp Wyndham, who have discovered the secret of living in harmony with the ‘scale, and, in particular, John Rookwood – the eponymous Fireman – and the Storey children, Allie and Nick.

Despite the novel’s title, Rookwood plays a relatively small part in most of what goes on: he lives on a small island off the shore of Camp Wyndham and rarely mixes with the residents of the camp, although it is clear that he has certain abilities when it comes to the ‘scale: not only can he control the fire, but he can shape it, give it consciousness and direction, and send it out to do his bidding. It is, perhaps, for this reason that he feels the need for isolation, and why he is feared by many of the Wyndham people.

wyndhamA place of comfort and friendship, the camp quickly gives Harper a sense of belonging, a strange though welcome feeling of family with teenage Allie and her young deaf-mute brother Nick, the grandchildren of the camp’s leader. There are everyday tensions – small factions within the camp who can’t live by the simple rules, or who believe that Father Storey’s approach to leadership is ineffective. But these minor tensions pale in comparison to the threat that constantly hangs over these people: the threat of discovery by a Cremation Crew on patrol, a death sentence from which there is no escape. These people – uninfected and striving to rid the world of those who have the ‘scale – are personified in radio personality, The Marlboro Man, with whom Harper’s ex-husband Jacob has aligned himself.

The Fireman takes an unusual approach to the post-apocalypse, turning our expectations on their heads, and asking us to root for the people who would normally be considered the bad guys. Imagine The Walking Dead where the zombies are the central characters, or The Stand where we’re asked to sympathise with a group of people who have been infected by Captain Tripps. Hill presents us with a group of infected characters – characters who should be dead, but who have found a way to live – and invites us to live their story. Evil comes in the form of the uninfected, who are trying to stamp out the infection and save as much of what’s left of the world as they possibly can. In normal circumstances we would be right there with them, hunting down the infected and hammering wooden stakes through their hearts, but here it is difficult to identify with them and we find ourselves hoping for a world where Dragonscale might become a normal part of human life. It’s a powerful image, and Hill does a fantastic job ensuring that we can still feel empathy for these people who, aside from the beautiful scrollwork on their skin, are people that we can easily relate to and empathise with, despite the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

Hill makes excellent use of imagery, and repeating motifs, to make the story more real for us, to bring it to life more fully in our minds. The characters and locations are well-drawn and seem to leap off the page as we read, but it’s things like the phoenix or the Freightliner that will stick with us long after we have finished reading the book. The fiery phoenix is a thing of beauty and 80s children will be hard-pressed not to think of Battle of the Planets when they first encounter it. A force for good, it is the diametric opposite of the Freightliner, the town truck that Jacob Grayson drives, and which haunts the residents of Camp Wyndham from the moment they first see it. In many ways an homage to Richard Matheson’s (and, indeed, Steven Spielberg’s) Duel, this truck takes on a life of its own, and constantly looms in the background of the story, a symbol of everything Harper has come to hate and fear about her ex-husband.

The homages and references come thick and fast, most frequently in the form of some of the greats of post-apocalyptic fiction lending their names to places or things. Camp Wyndham is the most obvious example, while The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood has a boat named after her. J.K. Rowling even gets a mention, as we learn of her demise at the mercy of the ‘scale. But perhaps the biggest homage, and the greatest source of inspiration for The Fireman, is the aforementioned King classic, The Stand.

As a massive fan of Stephen King, I tend to nerd out over the cross-references and in-jokes that he plants in his novels. More recently King and son Hill have been referencing each other’s books: Hill’s references to the world of The Dark Tower in his 2013 novel, NOS4R2 (or NOS4A2 for the world outside the UK); and King’s references to the central character from Hill’s debut, Heart-Shaped Box, in 2014’s Mr Mercedes. Here, Hill seems to take the referencing to a whole new level, and the number of parallels between The Fireman and The Stand are, frankly, staggering: world-changing virus: check; pregnant protagonist: check; a deaf-mute called Nick: check; an obnoxious teen called Harold: check; a leader who is referred to as “Mother” (or, indeed, “Father”): check. And that’s just the ones I made a note of. Despite these parallels, the stories are very different, The Fireman at once Hill’s own Stand and wonderful homage to four decades of his father’s work (including Hill’s own version of The Mist’s Mrs Carmody). Dark Tower enthusiasts will spot some references here as well to that well-worn world: Nozz-a-la Cola, and this disconnected thought as consciousness drains from Harper partway through the book:

They had forgotten who they were. They had forgotten their own names, the voices of their mothers, the faces of their fathers.

With The Fireman, Joe Hill has taken a strange – if not entirely unwelcome, for those of us who like Stephen King, at least – turn in his career as a novelist. For a man determined to make his way in the publishing world by his own talent rather than who he was – like many in the relatively small horror community of the time, I read and loved Hill’s collection, 20th Century Ghosts, before knowing his true identity – it seems odd that he should now attempt – very successfully, mind – to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps. The references are the least of it: there is a wonderful similarity in the writing styles of the pair and the reader comes away with the distinct impression that both subject matter and voice make this a distinctly “King” piece of work. The book is dedicated to, amongst a host of others, “my father, from whom I stole all the rest”, and The Fireman proves that, in this case at least, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Who better to be the “new Stephen King” than the man’s own son? This reader hopes that it’s not a miscalculation on Hill’s part, that it’s little more than an experiment in writing (though I, for one, would love to see Hill take on the fabled Gunslinger and crew). Because while The Fireman is a spectacular piece of work, Hill deserves much more than to be the shadow of his father.

In all, The Fireman is an excellent showcase for the talents of Joe Hill. I mentioned earlier that I think it’s likely to be his breakout novel, the story that spreads his name outside the genre. Yes, this is a grim look at post-apocalyptic America, but it’s a very different take than anything we’ve seen before. And more than that, it’s a story about people, about humanity’s acts of kindness and of evil. It’s a story about love, community, family. A story about hope, and how we cope when hope seems lost. Intense, beautiful and completely engrossing, The Fireman is Joe Hill’s finest novel to date, the work of a confident and mature writer for whom words are the building blocks of pure magic. It’s amongst the best novels I – or you – will read this year, and one I will be revisiting with the same frequency that I do its forebear. Essential reading for everyone, this is not to be missed.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS - Aliette de Bodard THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS

Aliette de Bodard (aliettedebodard.com)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£14.99

Whilst searching the ruins of Paris’ Grands Magasins for vital resources, Philippe and his companion come across a newborn Fallen, an Angel ejected from The City and exiled to the mortal plain. Deciding to harvest the Fallen for artefacts that contain powerful magic, Philippe is caught when members of one of Paris’ great Houses appears to claim the newborn. Bound to the House by Selene, the Head of Silverspires, and to Isabelle, the newborn, after tasting her blood, Philippe has no option but to find a means of escape. Unrest is brewing in Paris, and another war between the great Houses seems inevitable; it’s a situation that could work in Philippe’s favour, but before he can take advantage, he unwittingly unleashes an unspeakable evil on the House, a shadowy creature that roams the Île de la Cité, picking off members of the Household. Along with Isabelle and Madeleine, the House’s alchemist, Philippe discovers a decades-old secret that could destroy Silverspires.

Aliette de Bodard’s debut novel is set in a post-magical-apocalyptic Paris in or around the 1960s. Destroyed during a magical war that coincided, more or less, with the real world’s Great War, Paris is now a city divided into two main classes: the Houses and the Gangs. The Houses for the most part are run by – or heavily populated by – Fallen Angels, exiled from The City for infractions that they can no longer remember. Paris itself has suffered greatly as part of the war: buildings lie in ruins, provisions are scarce, especially for those not affiliated with one of the Houses, and the Seine is a magic-infested cesspool that humans and angels avoid at all costs.

When we enter this strange new world, we meet Philippe, a Vietnamese national who has ended up in Paris against his will: while he looks to be in his early twenties, Philippe was once Immortal, a member of the Jade Emperor’s court. Now hundreds of years old, Philippe has been in Paris for over sixty years, having been conscripted and shipped to France to fight in the war. Wielding a different flavour of magic to the city’s Fallen, Philippe is an enigma to the elders of House Silverspires of whom he becomes a captive before the story has barely started. His bond with Isabelle, a bond formed when he briefly tasted her blood, adds a further dimension to his captivity: Philippe has a constant watcher, and while Isabelle is new to the House, it is clear where her loyalties will ultimately lie.

Much of the action takes place in House Silverspires, which resides in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral and the other buildings on the Île de la Cité. De Bodard uses multiple viewpoints to give us a rounded understanding of how the Houses work, and of the relationships between the different Houses, without the need for much exposition. These viewpoints show us the House from a number of different perspectives: through the eyes of Philippe, who detests the House system for what it did to him during the war; those of Isabelle, the newest member of the Household; Madeleine, a mortal who spends her days working with magic, and dealing with an addiction that could see her expelled from the House should anyone discover it; and through the eyes of Selene, the Head of the House, and the direct successor of the House’s founder, First of the Fallen, Lucifer Morningstar.

Morningstar himself appears only in fleeting glimpses, in visions that Philippe has because of his connection to the evil that now stalks the House’s residents. There is little need for introduction, and de Bodard uses this to her advantage, tagging on the features that she needs for the Morningstar of her own world: the metal wings that were more than an affectation, the aloof manner. In many ways, each of the central characters is living in Morningstar’s shadow, some more literally than others, and despite being missing from both the story and the world – he hasn’t been seen for twenty years at the point Philippe enters House Silverspires – he remains a palpable presence throughout the novel.

The world de Bodard has created is beautifully-wrought, a post-apocalyptic nightmare unlike any you have seen before. There is a dangerous moment early in the narrative where it looks like the story may well stray into the realms of Twilight, but thankfully that proves not to be the case. This is a violent and dangerous world, populated by violent and dangerous characters, many of whom have the double advantage of being able to wield magic and being immortal. It is, strangely, a novel peopled by religious characters that manages to steer clear of the subject of faith (or Faith), bringing the religious mythology from a number of different backgrounds together in a seamless way to tell this gripping story that defies any single genre classification.

The House of Shattered Wings has all the ingredients a good story needs: a well-developed world populated by identifiable, engaging characters whose fate we care about from the moment we meet them and a story that keeps us turning the pages long past bedtime. Stylishly written, this is the most original piece of fiction – I find that “Fantasy” is far too restrictive – you’re likely to come across this year. A wonderful introduction to Aliette de Bodard, who is already an award-winning short story writer, The House of Shattered Wings is an excellent showcase for this mighty talent and adds yet another author to this reader’s “must-read” list.

EXTRACT From STEEPLE by Jon Wallace & COMPETITION

STEEPLE - Jon Wallace STEEPLE

Jon Wallace (jonwallace.co)

Gollancz (www.gollancz.co.uk)

£16.99

Today marks the publication of Steeple, the second book set in Jon Wallace’s post-apocalyptic world that we first saw in Barricade. To celebrate, we have a wonderful extract from the book, as well as a competition to win a paperback copy of Barricade.


I drain my cup of soup. Adede expects a pleasantry.
‘You have a good home,’ I say.
‘Thank you. Thank you.’
‘I must return to work now.’
I pick up my tool bag and leave the shack, heading for the north-south avenue. The sky over the city is suddenly dark, a new storm gathering.
I hear a commotion, children screaming in excitement. I turn towards the noise and a large group of young people laughing and yelling. They are gathered in a circle around a concrete slab.
William is the centre of attention, sitting on a BMX, absently watching as his sister lies down on the concrete. She holds out her arms, a huge smile on her face.
William waits for the crowd to settle, then sits up on his bike. He rolls it towards his sister and jumps the bike. He lands the front wheel between her right arm and chest. The crowd gasps, watching as he holds the bike, twisting on its front wheel, rear wheel aloft like bucking hind legs.
He spins anticlockwise, then jumps again, landing the front wheel the other side of Mary’s chest, rear wheel still raised. The children chant, arms thrown up:
‘Will-yam, Will-yam, Will-yam!’
He does not react, fixed in concentration. He jumps again, dropping onto his rear wheel this time, and begins bouncing the bike around his sister – to the left of her head, to the right, then either side of her chest, her waist, her legs, stopping below her feet. There he spins again, manipulating the bike like a fifth limb.
Huge excitement. Screams of disbelief. None are louder than Mary, who rolls and chokes on her laughter. William rides in a slow circle around her, acknowledging his audience with a wave. Such skill.
Then, over the children’s cheers, I hear a different sound: a wave of fright, rolling up the shanty from the south. William hears it too. He stops his bike.
‘Wossat?’
I leap onto the nearest roof and peer down the hill. A crowd of men are pouring through a breach in the south fence. Most are on foot, but some are on horseback. They shoot down shanty dwellers, toss petrol bombs, hammer and kick at the shacks. Many of them carry flags, bearing a symbol like a wolf’s head. Under the icon is smeared the word ‘Truth’.


I leave the children and cut through the alleyways, heading for the avenue, almost knocking Adede over as I break into a clearing. I tell her to locate her daughter and get to the high ground.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asks.
‘I am going to expel them from the premises.’
‘Are you mad?’
‘They are trespassing. I am empowered to defend the site.’
‘They’ll kill you!’
‘Unlikely.’
I leave her, press on to the avenue and head for the slaughter at the southern fence. I can see an invader on horseback, directing the people on foot. His nostrils are as flared as his mount’s.
I leap, drag him off his steed, toss him back towards the fence. I claim his seat, but his horse bucks when I try to steer. I struggle with the reins until I realise I am hurting the animal, and relax my grip.
The horse calms, snorts and stamps the mud. I am turning it towards the fence when I hear the whining noise. The unmistakable rasp of drone engines, overhead. I glance up at the storm clouds, pick out grey T-shapes, flocking.
Wait, I think.
Wait.
The ground shakes. A flash and deafening crack, and suddenly I am slapped to the earth and pinned under the horse. I claw at the mud, drag free of the burning animal, into a cloud of black, sulphurous smoke. I trip up the side of the bomb crater, over body parts and wreckage, breathing poison air.
My avenue is packed with wailing people. They back away from me, frightened by my burning skin. Adede emerges from the pack, her clothes stained with blood. Her eyes are cloudy and unfocused, until she notices me. She bares her teeth and screams.
‘You brought them here! Truth League hates Ficials. They wouldn’t have come here if not for you! They wouldn’t have bombed us if not for you!’
That is untrue.
‘William is DEAD! Their bomb killed my boy!’
She drops to her knees, wailing, clutching her chest.
What does she expect me to do?
She said herself: she would lose at least one child.


Extract 3: p89-90 and p97-98

From author Jon Wallace:

Reason: This extract is a good window into the world that created Kenstibec – a future Britain explored through a flashback story that runs throughout Steeple, showing the invulnerable, calculating Kenstibec as he was when still ‘factory fresh’. These two flashbacks show his first halting interactions with people (refugees) and his first encounters with the pre-war world of chaos and mindless violence that is hurtling towards destruction. It’s a different kind of writing to the main story but essential to both Barricade and Steeple.

barricade-cover-jon-wallace-gollanczCOMPETITION

To celebrate the publication of Steeple the fine folks at Gollancz have given us a couple of copies of Jon’s first book, Barricade, to give away. To enter, post a comment below proving that you’re human, before midnight next Thursday 25th June. Winners will be announced next Friday. Unfortunately, this competition is only open to UK residents.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

SEVENEVES - Neal Stephenson SEVENEVES

Neal Stephenson (www.nealstephenson.com)

The Borough Press (www.boroughpress.co.uk)

£20.00

The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason. It was waxing, only one day short of full. The time was 05:03:12 UTC. Later it would be designated A+0.0.0, or simply Zero.

An unknown Agent has split the moon into seven pieces, which remain in the moon’s original orbit around the Earth. When two of the pieces collide, causing fragmentation, Dr Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris – Doob – discovers that in two years the fragmentation will reach a saturation point and will submit the planet below to a five-thousand-year bombardment during which all life will be destroyed. Using the technology available to them, the world’s foremost scientists and space agencies design a Cloud Ark centred around the existing International Space Station, a structure that will save several thousand people and, theoretically at least, allow them to become self-sufficient in space until the Earth is once again habitable. Five thousand years later, the human race is now seven distinct races, descended from seven Eves who survived the early years of the Cloud Ark’s existence, and the terraforming of New Earth is almost complete: Kath Amalthova Two, along with one representative from each of the other six races, is chosen for a secret mission to the planet’s surface where an incredible discovery has been made.

There is a sense of great anticipation and excitement at the prospect of a new, weighty Neal Stephenson tome. Mainly because the reader has no idea what to expect until they start reading (previous books range from Seventeenth Century adventures to cryptography, from eco-thriller to cyberpunk classic), except that there is a good chance that they will be entertained and enlightened in equal measure. Seveneves is no exception, and sees Stephenson enter the realms of hard science fiction, which he touched upon briefly in 2008’s excellent Anathem.

Seveneves takes no time in catching the reader’s attention (“The moon blew up…”) before spending some time introducing the core characters and concepts of the novel. Taking an interesting approach to the apocalyptic trope, Stephenson presents an escape route for humanity based solely on the technology that is available now. So don’t expect starships with hyperdrives or warp engines, but rather a loosely-couple collection of “arklets” that are centred around the existing International Space Station, or Izzy. As always, Stephenson has a keen insight into how technology actually works versus how it’s supposed to work. Using the concept of cloud-based computing technology as a basis for the Cloud Ark, he presents a picture of autonomous craft across which the human race – as well as the data and genetic materials required to rebuild the planet – is spread, so that if one craft is destroyed, very little is lost in the grand scheme of things. In the true spirit of necessity being the mother of invention, there is a more practical reason for this approach, which is to be able to avoid the bolides that will eventually be thrown their way from the moon’s remains. But of course, things don’t end up working as they were originally designed, so much of what the Cloud Ark should have been is effectively “de-scoped” in order to have a workable plan within the two-year timescales imposed by Doob’s calculations. “Done is better than perfect,” as any software engineer will tell you.

The Cloud Ark wouldn’t be anything if it didn’t have a human population on-board. As the book’s title suggests, this is very much a female-driven narrative with many of the central roles both “today” and “five thousand years later” filled by strong female role models: Dinah, the miner’s daughter who has been stationed on Izzy for a year before the moon blows up, using her robots to mine the huge chunk of rock and iron – once an asteroid – that has been attached to the space station’s forward end; Ivy, Izzy’s commander and a skilled pilot who will ultimately bring the remains of the human race to safety; Julia Bliss Flaherty, the US President who will become a thorn in the side of humanity’s remains in the years following the moon’s disintegration; Kath Two, through whose eyes we witness the birth of New Earth five thousand years after the destruction of Old Earth. There are, of course, strong male counterparts – Doob; Sean Probst, the owner of the mining company for which Dinah works, who goes on a mission of his own to find water for the Ark – but they tend to take a back seat to the novel’s women.

The first two-thirds of the book concern themselves with the three or four years immediately following Zero, and allows us to see the creation of the Cloud Ark through to the Hard Rain that wipes the face of the planet clean, and the desperate run to the Ark’s – and humanity’s – final resting place. The characters here are people we know, people with whom we can identify, people who we feel – for the most part – will make good ambassadors for the human race. And in the best tradition of Stephenson fiction, the narrative is liberally scattered with technical discussions and all the information we need in order to understand the situation on the Ark: how nuclear reactors work; what delta vee is, and how it is used to move between different orbits; a very brief introduction to orbital mechanics and Lagrangian points. It’s vital to understanding the story, and Stephenson presents the facts in a way that are easy to absorb and leaves us with the satisfied feeling that we have learned something new, and have enjoyed ourselves in the process. The story is infused with plenty of tension and until the two-thirds mark there is no guarantee as to the outcome or survival rate of the people who were lucky enough to make it off the doomed planet and onto the Ark.

The book’s final third is set five thousand years later, and the human race has re-established itself in a habitat ring that completely encircles Earth. Down on the surface TerReform are working to re-create the flora and fauna that once populated Old Earth from the surviving genetic samples. Stephenson takes time introducing us to the habitat ring, and to Cradle, the city at the end of a massive tether that has the ability to touch down on the planet’s surface. We also get a flavour of the political situation and it’s easy to see that little has changed on this front in the intervening period. Here the characters are less familiar, the descendants of genetically-modified children bred to have certain qualities depending on the wishes of each of the seven women – the Seven Eves of the novel’s title – on whom it falls to re-create the human race. But we still have plenty of time to get to know them (one third of this novel is almost three-hundred pages, which is a decent-sized novel in itself), and their peculiarities, as their mission to the planet’s surface progresses. Here we find the resolutions to a number of loose ends that Stephenson seemingly leaves dangling at the end of the book’s first section, and the results are as surprising as they are satisfying to the reader’s curiosity.

Throughout, Stephenson attempts to maintain some grounding in fact, ensuring that the science behind his inventions is as sound as possible, while still allowing him to manipulate the characters and their environments to suit the direction of the story. Seveneves presents us with a view of the apocalypse from the outside; these are people who have survived through escape, rather than through some freak immunity or well-constructed bunker system. His approach makes the travails of Ivy, Dinah, Doob et al thoroughly believable, and his characterisations ensure that these are people we care about, people we want to succeed not just because of the consequences, but because they are people we care about, people that we feel deserve some kind of break after what the author puts them through.

A weighty tome, yes, but Seveneves grabs the reader with its opening line and holds their attention for the five thousand year and almost 900-page duration. This latest addition to Neal Stephenson’s canon has all of the author’s trademarks – great characters, great premise, plenty of technical detail and a wicked sense of humour – and adds another string to a bow that already encompasses multiple genres and technical areas. Stephenson is a rare beast: a polymath with the ability to tell an engaging and entertaining story. Seveneves is an excellent addition to a body of work that includes genre classics like Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, old-fashioned hard science fiction in the style of Asimov, and shows, once again, that Stephenson is a writer to be reckoned with, one of our greatest living storytellers.

INFLUENCES: Nevil Shute’s ON THE BEACH by ALIYA WHITELEY

aliya Name: ALIYA WHITELEY

Author of: THE BEAUTY (2014)

On the web: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com

On Twitter: AliyaWhiteley

If stories are a way of finding a start point and an end point in something that has no framework, then post-apocalyptic fiction promises the big full stop more than any other genre. But I’ve always thought it rarely brings itself to deliver on that promise. There’s always hope, isn’t there? The Road gives us the boy and Blindness eventually lifts the dark. The world as we know it ends, but a new one starts to emerge through the rubble; we see it poking out its shoots in the final pages of most post-apocalyptic novels.

otbWell, you don’t get that in On The Beach. First published in 1957, it’s about the last people left alive after an exchange of nuclear weapons that irradiates the planet. Winds are carrying radiation to these final survivors, in Melbourne, Australia, and they know it. It creeps a little closer on every page.

US Submarine Captain Dwight Towers meets an Australian Commander, Peter Holmes, and is invited to weekend party. Peter has a wife, Mary, and a baby girl. His wife’s friend, Moira, attends the party too, and the plot follows the four adults living out their last months without much fuss. Quiet conversations take place, and the nature of their group relationship changes.

Why is it considered less truthful to imagine that people would cling to order in such a situation? Shute’s novel, much like the science fiction novels of other writers of the 1950s such as John Wyndham and John Christopher, imagined that in catastrophic situations people organise themselves and attempt to find structure. That doesn’t seem particularly old-fashioned to me. Rules are made and roles assigned – written, spoken, or sometimes never discussed at all – and the drawn-out goodbye at the heart of On The Beach comes with good manners, maybe because that is simply easier when the adrenaline has faded.

I think my favourite moment in the novel happens between the two women, Mary and Moira. Mary is generally sheltered from life by her husband, but he has been sent away on military business. He has tried to explain to her that she might have to accept the responsibility of killing their baby girl to spare her from radiation sickness, and she has refused to listen. But as she sits with Moira, drinking brandy late into the night, she suddenly faces the situation. She asks Moira to help her kill the baby when the time comes. Moira holds her hand, and agrees. The responsibilities shift without great fanfare. Although Shute quotes TS Eliot at the beginning of the novel, it’s Yeats that I remember in their conversation. A terrible beauty is born.

When I came to write my own post-apocalyptic novella, The Beauty, it was that element I wanted to draw on – the group with no hope, but that had not given into hopelessness. The End is a concept that fascinates us all, in stories and in life, but it does not have to come in pain and fear. It can come in quiet words, in a sudden acceptance of what needs to be done and who we need to be. In On The Beach it comes with the acknowledgement that killing the baby might be the most humane thing you ever do, even as it means the end of humanity.

THE BEAUTY by Aliya Whiteley

THE BEAUTY - Aliya Whiteley THE BEAUTY

Aliya Whiteley (aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com)

Unsung Stories (www.unsungstories.co.uk)

£9.99

The Group have made the Valley of the Rocks their home. Each of them has a role to play: William, the leader; Ben, the doctor; Nathan, the storyteller and keeper of the Group’s history. Like every other settlement on the planet, the Group is made up exclusively of men; every single female has been wiped out by a mysterious illness. Mankind is in its final days: with no way to procreate, this is the final generation of humanity. Until one day Nathan discovers a strange fungus growing on the womens’ graves that will change everything.

We meet the members of the Group through the eyes of twenty-three-year-old Nathan, who lives up to his role as keeper of their collective memory, and the storyteller. There are no women left in the world – or at least that small part of it to which the Group are now, voluntarily, confined – and the men have begun to make peace with the fact that they are the end of the human race. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades everything they do, and yet they continue to gather, to remember, to spend the final days of humanity with some semblance of civility. When Nathan discovers the strange fungus, and later the Beauty that grows from it, things inevitably change. Here is some hope for the continuation of the race, and the Group begins to split into different factions, some with violence on their minds.

In Aliya Whiteley’s short novella, the focus is very much on the relationships and interactions between the men and the Beauty, as well as a close examination of the dynamics within the Group itself. Jealousy and fear are pitted against love and hope, with no definitive answer concerning who is right. Should the Beauty be trusted, or do they have ulterior motives? Whiteley leaves it up to the reader to decide, giving us enough information to come down on one side of the argument or the other. There are no explanations as to what happened to the Earth’s female population, or what the Beauty are or where they came from, primarily because we only get Nathan’s side of the story and, like the other members of the Group, he has no idea of the answers to either question.

The Beauty is a short piece, and all the more powerful for its brevity. Beautifully written, it’s a disturbing and though-provoking vision of one possible future for mankind. While it’s unlikely to give the reader nightmares, there is plenty here to leave us feeling more than a little uncomfortable. With hints of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Aliya Whiteley presents an old-fashioned science fiction/horror story that could easily have sprung from the imagination of the great John Wyndham, and stands alongside The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes as a fine example of the genre. This short (not quite 100 pages long) tale is enough to leave the reader wanting more, and hoping for something more substantial in the near future from Ms Whiteley.

A brief digression to talk about the package itself: The Beauty is one of the first two books from new publisher, Unsung Stories. It’s a beautiful package, from the striking front cover to the internal design, the perfect complement to an excellent story. The publisher’s aim is to get "weird stories, beautifully told" out into the world. The Beauty is an excellent start, and I will be waiting with excitement to see how they plan to follow it.

Short but deeply affecting, The Beauty is a wonderfully written piece of post-apocalyptic fiction that you won’t want to put down once you’ve picked it up. If this short sample is anything to go by, Aliya Whiteley is an exciting new talent and it’s a dead cert that we’ll be hearing much more from her in the future. I, for one, can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next. For now, though, this is one you won’t want to miss.

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