Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

Retrofuturism is an area of sci-fi with proliferating sub-genres. First there was steampunk, Victoriana sci-fi usually replete with airships, flying goggles and cogs. But now other time periods are muscling in on the act. There is clockpunk, based on an area before a steam. But there is also dieselpunk and atompunk taking the retrofuturistic baseline deep into the twentieth century. Catherynne M Valente’s latest novel for adults Radiance (she has been spending much of her recent time writing for children about a Fairyland of her own making) is self-described as decopunk. Decopunk replaces Victorian crinolines and grime with the high fashion and flashy chrome of the Art Deco era. Also sometimes known as raygun gothic, decopunk is flashy, pulpy and overall lighter than its steam-driven cousin. Radiance is more than just retrofuturism, though. Valente has created a complete alternative not only of our world but of our solar system. In the Radiance universe, all of the planets and many of their moons are both habitable and inhabited (including Pluto which in our universe was not even discovered until 1932). People zip between these strange and unique environments in rocket ships. They survive partly due to their reliance on a substance…

Illuminae by Kaufman and Kristoff

Illuminae states its intention right from the cover, which is covered in scraps of partially redacted documents. The book itself is told through a series of recovered documents of varying types, many flagged with introductory comments. The form of narrative has been done before and it is worth saying at the outset that Kaufman and Kristoff do it very well. Despite lots of goriness and evil goings on, all swear words are redacted to keep this closer to PG than MA territory. The main characters are two seventeen-year-olds who have just broken up when they have to survive an attack that destroys their home planet – an illegal mining colony in the far reaches of the universe. They are rescued and end up on separate ships in a fleet of three trying to outrun a battleship bent on their destruction. Both are likeable characters – Kady the techno-hacker chick with a healthy disregard for authority and Ezra, the jock with a heart of gold – and the narrative constantly flicks between the two. Through all the mayhem that follows, their relationship issues are never far from the surface. Kaufman and Kristoff have fun with a bunch of sci-fi sub-genres. Illuminae…

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald

A long line of science fiction classics, including Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Arthur C Clark’s Moondust, through to more modern writers like Ben Bova (Moonrise and Moonwar) have focussed on life on a settled or developed Moon.  In Luna: New Moon, Ian McDonald brings his hardscrabble, developing-world sci-fi sensibility to the Moon to dazzling effect. As could be expected after books like River of Gods and Brasyl, McDonald’s Luna (as Heinlein also styled it) is no westernised utopia, but rather a heady mix of Asian, European, Caribbean and African influences. Luna has been corporatised and is a major source of raw materials for Earth. It is a highly stratified and monetised society, where even the air you breathe must be paid for and the dead are recycled for the benefit of the living. Under the rule of the Lunar Development Corporation sit five families, the Five Dragons, each responsible for a different aspect of Lunar profit. McDonald’s story focusses mainly on the Brazilian Corta family, the upstart fifth dragon, whose Helium3 operations keep Earth’s lights on. The Corta matriarch has political issues not only within her own family but with her rivals, particularly the Australian Mackenzie…

Welcome to Night Vale by Fink and Cranor

The extremely strange town of Night Vale will be familiar to listeners to the popular podcast which has been going since 2012. For those who have never heard about the town of Night Vale – which is ruled over by a glow cloud (all hail the mighty glow cloud), where the most dangerous place is the library, it is subversive to believe in mountains, the most popular dish at the diner is invisible pie and where the police have been replaced by secret police who are always listening – this novelisation of the podcast is an eye opening and brain-tingling experience. Jackie Fierro and Dianne Crayton are both searching for something. Jackie, a perpetual nineteen year old, is looking for a man she can’t remember who gave her a slip of paper that she can not get rid of with the words KING CITY written on it. Diane is searching for a missing work colleague who no one remembers and is side-tracked when she spots the father of her shape-shifting teenage son Josh, who left town when Josh was a baby. The narrative alternates between their separate and then shared quests. There is a plot to Welcome to Night Vale,…

Steeple by Jon Wallace

Jon Wallace’s debut novel, Barricade was a blistering, visceral ride through a post-robopocalyptic Britain. It dropped readers into a nuclear blasted landscape and an ongoing war between the ravaged, disease-ridden survivors of humanity (the Reals) and their implacable, seemingly indestructible android foes (the Ficials). Barricade’s protagonist, a Ficial called Kenstibec, emotionless and virtually indestructible, was the perfect guide to this milieu. When Steeple opens Kenstibec, now just Ken, is pretending to be a Real after losing the nanotechnology that allows him to repair himself. Much like Barricade, Steeple wastes little time before sending Kenstibec off on a quest. Sent with his partner-in-crime Fatty (aka Phil) and a woman called Belinda to ascend Hope Tower, a massive residential building in the heart of London that has somehow survived the nuclear exchange. Kenstibec, never one to take orders, has his own reasons for going. Steeple is all action – Kenstibec and his companions lurching from one nasty, violent, stress-filled situation to another. But it is also, as its predecessor was, full of mordant humour and sly social commentary – exploring attitudes towards housing, development and consumerism. Flashback sections detail Kenstibec’s involvement in the design and creation of Hope Tower, reflecting Britain’s historical…

The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore
Crime , Recommended , Review , Thriller / 06/03/2016

Many crime novels straddle the line between crime and horror. Serial killers, on the whole, are the stuff of nightmares and crime writers have been falling over themselves for some time to up the gore factor. While horror novels usually rely on some form of supernatural agency and do not necessarily have the neat resolution of the crime genre, the bloody results are often the same. And so it is with The Poison Artist – a crime novel with the feel of a horror novel or a horror novel with crime elements – it is often hard to tell. Although in this case that ambiguity is not a bad thing. Before the reader gets to the crime there is the pain. Dr Caleb Maddox, toxicologist and pain researcher, has been dumped by his girlfriend after a fairly vicious fight which involved flinging of glass. Caleb is drowning his sorrows in the bar of the San Francisco hotel in which he is taking refuge when he catches sight of a beautiful woman. He moves on to a smaller nearby where he encounters the same woman who thoroughly bewitches him to the extent that he begins a city-wide search for her. At…

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Literature , Recommended , Review / 06/03/2016

It is easy to compare any novel narrated by a disaffected American teenager with the seminal Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield has become the archetypical American teen – intelligent, insightful and with plenty of promise but constantly fighting against a system which seeks to pigeon hole and repress. Lucia, the eighteen year-old narrator of How to Set a Fire and Why, fits into this mould but this is a very different tale and a very different world. Lucia has been dealt what can only be described as a losing hand by life – her father is dead, her mother is in an asylum, she lives with her elderly aunt in a garage and she has just been kicked out of school for stabbing another student with a pencil. But Lucia, despite all of her protestations to the contrary, still tries to find a place where she can fit. In her case, that place is the school’s mythical Arson Club – a group of students who are keen to burn things down. Lucia’s character comes across strongly from the first sentence. Jesse Ball’s first person narrative absolutely inhabits the mind of this troubled teen. While sometimes not as smart as…

The Midnight Watch by David Dyer

The sinking of the Titanic, now over one hundred years ago, is still one of the most famous disasters in history. So it is no wonder that it has been the subject of countless books and films. Given this, the question has to be whether there is the appetite for yet another novel exploring this incident. The answer, strongly given by David Dyer in his debut The Midnight Watch, is an unqualified yes. The Midnight Watch is not primarily the story of the Titanic itself. Its focus is on the SS Californian, the ship closest to the Titanic on the night that it hit the iceberg. The Californian had stopped due to the pack ice and its radio operator had warned nearby ships, including the Titanic, of the danger. The second officer, on the midnight watch, saw white rockets, traditionally a distress signal, coming from the distant ship, which he had not identified as the Titanic. He reported his observations to his captain who did not order any response and so the Californian did not do anything to respond until the following morning. The question that emerged later, and that David Dyer explores, is what stopped the Californian going to…

Fall by Candice Fox
Crime , Recommended / 23/01/2016

  Eden Archer, Australia’s answer to Dexter Morgan, and her damaged partner Frank Bennett are back at work in Fall, investigating a series of murders of women joggers. Underlying this investigation is another one by Frank’s lover (and former psychologist) Imogen, who solves cold cases in her spare time and is closing in on Eden’s true identity. There is plenty else going on in Fall, with Eden’s ex-crimelord father Hades having a cameo and a potential new recurring character added to the mix. In some ways, Fall feels like the novel that Fox might have written as the follow up to her debut Hades. It features another serial killer, and in some respects follows the pattern of other procedurals of its type. But the continuing impact of events in her follow-up, Eden, the investigation into Eden’s past and Fox’s style lift Fall out of the usual serial killer chase genre. With every novel, Fox is more in control of her craft. While her mix of first and third person narration in Hades sometimes felt forced, by this third outing the constant shifts of point of view happen effortlessly and serve to ratchet up the narrative tension. Particularly amusing and effective…