This Census-Taker by China Mieville
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 21/06/2016

Last year, China Miéville released Three Moments of an Explosion (reviewed here), a book of short stories that once again confirmed him as one of the pre-eminent voices in world fantasy. While readers are waiting for the next full length Miéville novel, expected around August this year, he has released a story described as a “novella”. At just over 200 pages long, This Census-Taker was probably a little too long for the recent anthology, but possibly not long enough to be called a novel. This Census-Taker opens with typical Miévillian flourish: a young boy is running down a hill – away from what? towards what? is that blood on his hands or dirt? how old is he (even he isn’t sure)? The first paragraph is part third person, part first person, the facts are in question – but it is immediately engaging. The story only becomes both stranger and more obscure from there. The boy lives on a mountainside above an unnamed town that exists on two sides of a bridge in the mountains. There has been a war of some sort, there is a distant city on the coast but few go there and fewer return. The boy’s father,…

Jonathan Dark or the Evidence of Ghosts by AK Benedict
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 10/06/2016

Even the name of this novel gives the hint that this is a mash up of two genres. Modern day police procedural meets Victorian-style ghost story on the streets of (where else?) London. Ghost stories and crime novels seem like a natural fit. And Benedict brings them together reasonably effectively in her second novel. Although, as the title suggests, she is not really sure whether this is a crime novel (about detective Jonathan Dark) or a ghost story (about ghostwhisperer Jonathan Dark). Jonathan Dark is a police detective, on the trail of a stalker who killed his last victim and has moved on to a new target. That target is Maria King, blind since birth but recently given her sight back through surgery. Maria is a mudlark, spending time on the banks of the Thames digging for pieces of old London. She still walks the streets of London with a blindfold, unable to bear the thought of using her newly regained vision. At the same time Finnegan Finch has died after taking part in a deadly game while trying to escape the clutches of a shadowy organisation. Finnegan returns to London as a ghost, helped by his old mate and…

Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 19/05/2016

Daniel O’Malley’s debut novel The Rook deservedly won the Aurealis best science fiction award in 2012. A genre mash of a novel that could only be described by its multiple influences. The Rook was X-Men meets Jason Bourne meets the X-Files with a touch of Yes, Minister thrown in for good measure. Based on a fictional secret British Government agency known as the Checquy, staffed by people with supernatural powers and protecting Britain from the X-Files-style unknown. Stiletto takes up not long after the end of The Rook. The Checquy is now in peace negotiations with its long-time enemies the Grafters. The Grafters are rogue scientists who distrust the “demonic” Checquy and have the ability to biomodify themselves and others. The Checquy all but wiped out the Grafters hundreds of years before and the enmity has been brewing ever since. But just as a fragile peace is one the table a third party emerges to derail the negotiations. Stiletto has much of the verve and many of the weird supernatural-meets-secret-service action set pieces of its predecessor. But it is overly long. It takes close to 200 pages for the plot to start moving. O’Malley fills the spaces with exposition, backstory…

The Trees by Ali Shaw
Fantasy , Review / 11/05/2016

Just when you think you’ve seen (and catalogued) every type of apocalyptic scenario imaginable, along comes Ali Shaw’s The Trees. The treepocalypse that kicks off Shaw’s exploration of man versus nature sees thousands of fully grown trees springing from the earth early one morning, literally ripping modern society apart. Not everyone is upset by this turn of events. As one character thinks, the trees “were as much a promise as they were an apocalypse”. But that doesn’t prevent Shaw from sending his characters on a fairly standard post-apocalyptic journey. It should probably be pointed out that this is not the first treepocalypse of recent times. Doctor Who, a series which in its 50 plus year run has probably dealt with every apocalyptic scenario going, had a similar scenario back in 2014’s “In the Forest of the Night”. Although in that case (spoiler alert), the reason for the trees’ appearance was much more benign and no one died horribly impaled on a branch that emerged suddenly through the middle of their bed in the middle of the night. Shaw’s main character, Alistair, is a bit of a loser. On an indeterminate break from his teaching career, and with his wife away…

The Maker of Swans by Paraic O’Donnell
Fantasy , Review / 04/05/2016

The Maker of Swans, Paraic O’Donnell’s debut novel, takes readers deep into modern-gothic British fantasy territory. Its old-world tone is reminiscent of Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and, more recently, Tim Clare’s The Honours, although it is set in more modern times than either of these (possibly the ‘60s, although it is hard to tell). The book opens with a murder. Witnessed by Eustace, the factotum to the mysterious Mr Crowe, whose job it is also to clean up after the act. Only the act itself has brought some unwanted attention to Crowe and his young ward Clara. Crowe has used his powers to kill and, as a result, has to pay a forfeit to the mysterious Dr Chastern. The forfeit involves the use of his powers and also revolves around Clara. But Clara has powers of her own. The narrative is in two very distinct parts. The first half slowly builds up to the visit of Dr Chastern and its aftermath. The second half puts the characters in very different places, explores Clara’s developing powers and dips into the lengthy history between Crowe and Eustace. The Maker of Swans maintains its deeply mysterious atmosphere throughout and this…

The Girl on the Liar’s Throne by Den Patrick
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 22/04/2016

Den Patrick concludes his Erebus Sequence with more of what made the rest of this series so enjoyable. Plenty of sword play, a little bit of politics, great dialogue and characters to care about, even if you disagree with what they are doing. The series, which started surprising with The Boy with the Porcelain Blade (reviewed here) and continued to impress with The Boy Who Wept Blood (reviewed here), has been a welcome reprieve to the often cookie-cutter worlds of epic fantasy. The finale is no exception. It is difficult to talk about the plot of The Girl on the Liar’s Throne without giving away some of the key plot points of the earlier novels. While The Boy Who Wept Blood advanced ten years on the first volume, this book opens only months after the events of that instalment. Anea, the Silent Queen of Landfall is in the oubliette, a dungeon in which the waters erase memories. On her throne is an imposter, Eris, under the sway of the mysterious Erebus and undoing all of the good work that Anea had started. This is again a shift for this series which has focussed on a group of Orfino, strange hybrid creatures…

Eleanor by Jason Gurley
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Young Adult / 18/04/2016

Eleanor is a book steeped in loss and grieving. It opens in 1963 when the pregnant mother of a small child abandons her family and moves quickly to a tragic car accident involving the woman’s daughter and her own children twenty-two years later. Jump again to 1993, and fourteen-year old Eleanor is living with her alcoholic mother, trying to hold the household together in the face of her mother’s pain and cobble together some type of normal life. So far so naturalistic, and Gurley handles these early scenes well, engaging the reader in Eleanor’s world and tragic history. And then the book takes a swerve to the fantastic. As Eleanor herself observes – “over the rainbow, down the rabbit hole, through the cupboard”. It turns out that Eleanor is being watched by strange, otherworldly beings and, in their attempt to communicate with her, they pull her out of the world into other realities. Each time they do this, Eleanor disappears for long periods of time and, on a couple of occasions, ends up dangerously injured on her return. But she is determined, with the help of her friend Jack, to find out what exactly is happening to her. Secrets and…

Fellside by MR Carey
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 13/04/2016

Women’s prison dramas are the new black. While there is plenty of realistic women’s prison drama about at the moment it also turns out to be a pretty effective place to set a modern gothic horror tale. MR Carey’s follow up to The Girl With All the Gifts takes the reader into the high security wing of a private women’s prison set in foggy North Yorkshire. Into this mix he adds more than a sprinkling of the supernatural and stands back to watch the results. Jess Moulson has been accused of starting a fire which severely disfigured her and took the life of the young boy who lived in the flat above her. Addicted to heroin at the time, Jess sleepwalks through the trial, believing herself to be guilty and seeking punishment. Once convicted she is sent to the private, high security women’s prison Fellside. Once there, however, she is brought out of her personal fog by the intervention of a dreamlike presence assuring her that she was not responsible for the boy’s death and urging her to find his killer. It turns out that Jess has more power than just communing with the dead. She also has the ability to…

Day Boy by Trent Jamieson
Fantasy , Recommended , Review , Young Adult / 08/04/2016

With so much second-rate material around, the vampire genre has become a little anaemic. Trent Jamieson’s Day Boy provides a welcome and much needed infusion of new blood into the genre. The focus of Day Boy is not the Masters (the word vampire is never used), who rule a post-apocalyptic Earth, but their Day Boys. Each Master has a Day Boy to do their work during daylight hours. Part servant, part protégé, part surrogate child, part confidante, the Day Boys epitomise the Masters rule and wield some power over other humans as a result. Mark, the narrator, is Day Boy to Dain, exiled with four other Masters to the regional town of Midfield. The world that Mark inhabits has a wild-west steampunk feel. Midfield is a farming community, connected to the Master’s more advanced capital city by steam train. However, this is a world that is also recognisably Australian, complete with heat, dust, flies and deadly creatures lurking in the bush. Day Boy is a twisted coming of age story. Mark experiences all of the usual tropes – fights with his peers, a girl he is keen on but not supposed to spend time with, and important decisions to be…

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,…

Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn
Fantasy , Review / 06/03/2016

Lian Hearn returns to her best-selling faux-Japanese fantasy world in a new four book series being published in Australia in two volumes. Set three hundred years before her Tales of the Otori, The Tale of Shikanoko is pure sword and sorcery fantasy with a Japanese twist. As with her Otori series, the setting is not Japan, or even a Japanese version of ancient Japan, but it is a Japan-like world heavily based on the myths, legends and style of Japanese mythological tales. As the book opens, a young boy loses his father to forest goblins and then, before he can come of age, his uncle tries to kill him in order to inherit his lands. Saved by a forest sorcerer, Kazumaru is renamed Shikanoko (“the deer’s child”) and is given a stag’s mask of great power and a new destiny. At the same time, moves are afoot to unseat the emperor, kill his son and heir and put his brother on the throne of the eight islands. When Shikanoko emerges back into the world, he is thrown right into the middle of this conflict. Being a mythological tale there is little room for too much character development. Characters tend to…

Down Station by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 06/03/2016

Doorways into magical lands are a venerable fantasy tradition going back centuries in English fiction. Think Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. In the Twentieth Century we had the seminal Narnia series and plenty of imitators followed. More recently we’ve even seen a modern deconstruction of that mythology in books like Lev Grossman’s Magician’s series. In this context, Simon Morden’s Down Station seems a little staid. The central idea is an old one, any interest here is what he manages to do with it. Down Station opens naturalistically. Troubled teen Mary is working as an after hours garbage collector in the London Underground and young engineering student Dalip is similarly working on a rail replacement team. When an unknown disaster strikes above ground Mary, Dalip and a few of their fellow workers escape through a door that takes them into another world from which there is seemingly no return. They soon discover that they are not the first people to come to the world of Down from London and that the magic of the world will allow them to reinvent themselves. So far, so clichéd. But a couple of aspects save Down Station. The first is the main characters. There…

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 05/01/2016

Patrick deWitt has gone into fractured fairytale territory in his latest novel. Undermajordomo Minor, set somewhere in Europe, sometime in the nineteenth century comes complete with castles, dukes, battles, pickpockets, chambermaids and the titular majordomo. Lucien “Lucy” Minor needs to leave home. He lands himself a job as assistant to Olderclough, the majordomo  of the Castle von Aux. On arrival, Lucy finds that Olderclough’s previous assistant has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and that only one other member of staff is left in the once grand castle. Even the Duchess has left, and the Duke himself is never seen. Lucy is warned to lock his door at night as strange creatures haunt the castle. Lucy befriends two of the villagers – Memel and Mewe and falls hard for the beautiful Klara who is betrothed to a soldier fighting a not too distant war. Lucy Minor is a fascinating protagonist while being a hard character to like. A liar, a coward, a man who really does not much from life but passionate nonetheless. These are the traits that make Lucy the perfect guide through deWitt’s gothic world. Just as fascinating is the cast of minor characters. Each initially comes across as a…