Books review: The best recent science fiction and fantasy novels – roundup
The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch; Embers of War by Gareth L Powell; The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams; Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin; All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai.
In The Gone World by Tom Sweterlitsch (Headline, £14.99), NCIS agent Shannon Moss looks into the murder of a family and the abduction of their teenage daughter: the prime suspect is a Navy Seal who was lost on a deep space mission years earlier. Agent Moss works on a black ops programme that utilises time travel as an aid to its investigations, and she journeys into the future in order to track down the kidnapped girl and the killer. As if this were not a thrilling enough premise, Sweterlitsch stirs an intriguing end-of-the-world scenario into the mix. In every possible future investigated by naval agents, the world has come to an end – and the “Terminus” event is destined to destroy Moss’s timeline, too. How the murder inquiry and the enigma of the terminal event are linked is just one of the many enjoyable aspects of this dark, page-turning SF thriller; another is the character of Moss. Driven by the loss of a childhood friend and her own traumas in adulthood, she is a resilient, vulnerable and likable protagonist.
Embers of War (Titan, £7.99), Gareth L Powell’s sixth novel and the opening volume of a trilogy, tells a familiar tale: a war criminal assumes a new identity and runs for cover, with various parties in hot pursuit. When a starship liner is shot down in a far-flung star system, Captain Sal Konstanz is tasked with rescuing survivors, and an opposing agent is sent to find the war criminal who was aboard the liner. So far so simple, but Powell skilfully complicates the situation in a compulsively readable, expansive space opera with huge alien artefacts in the form of the Gallery (a solar system whose planets have been individually carved into colossal monuments), an ancient extraterrestrial race whose quiescent power is about to be reawakened and a sentient starship with a conscience. It’s the way he forms a series of first-person narratives into a compelling and satisfying whole that lifts the book far above most run-around space capers.
Another novel that sounds simplistic in precis but reveals its depths in the telling is The Bitter Twins by Jen Williams (Headline, £14.99), the second volume of the Winnowing Flame trilogy. This fantasy saga should win converts to a genre in which dragons, eldritch monsters, battles between good and evil and perilous quests have become cliches. Williams deploys all these, but brings her dark and immersive narrative to life with vivid descriptive passages, a great line in sarcastic humour and human insight. The monstrous Jure’lia are once again threatening to destroy the empire of Ebora, and the only hope of defeating them is to train and deploy the griffin-like war beasts. It falls to fell-witch Noon and swaggering sword-for-hire Tormalin to meld them into an effective fighting force. While The Bitter Twins could be read as a stand-alone, readers are advised to begin with the first book, The Ninth Rain.
Spare and Found Parts by Sarah Maria Griffin (Titan, £8.99) is set 100 years after “The Turn” brought a terrible epidemic to an unnamed but thinly disguised Ireland. The country is divided into “the Pale” and “the Pasture”: the Pale is inhabited by citizens missing body parts, while the Pasture is a paradisal realm populated by those given biomechanical prostheses by Dr Julian Crane. His neglected daughter, Nell – who was born without a heart, but given a clockwork one by her father – is maudlin but spirited, and grows up in a draconian society where technology is proscribed. After finding a mechanical hand washed up on the beach, Nell dreams of creating an android companion who might understand her, but she lives in a society where computer code is considered evil. Spare and Found Parts is a truly original creation: part magical realism, part steampunk, it’s a coming-of-age allegory that examines technological progress and an individual’s place in a stratified society.
Thanks to the invention of the Goettreider Engine in 1965, which creates limitless power from the Earth’s rotation, the world of 2016 is a post-scarcity utopia. Tom Barren, the narrator of Elan Mastai’s first novel, All Our Wrong Todays (Penguin, £7.99), is a thirtysomething without ambition or much of a future. He is employed on a time travel project – and that’s when the problems begin. After a tragic incident, Barren whisks himself back in time in an attempt to change the future, only to deprive the world of the Goettreider Engine. On returning to the year 2016, he finds himself inhabiting not the utopia of his own timeline but, as it seems to him, the dystopia of our own reality. What follows is an imbroglio of temporal shenanigans as Barren attempts to locate Lionel Goettreider and make amends. All Our Wrong Todays is an entertaining romp that should appeal to fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife.
- Eric Brown’s latest novel is Binary System (Solaris). To buy these books go to guardianbookshop.com.