The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 19/09/2017

Natasha Pulley burst onto the fantasy scene last year with her stunning debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. This slightly steampunk tale of Victorian London was full of charm and whimsy but also beautifully observed, historically fascinating and populated with interesting characters. Now she follows this up with The Bedlam Stacks, and while one character from Filigree Street, at least, makes a brief appearance, no familiarity with that book is required. In fact The Bedlam Stacks, while in some ways initially resembling its predecessor and  a kind of prequel to it, turns out to be a very different beast. It is the 1850s and the East India Company is desperately trying to find a reliable source of quinine to treat malaria. The Peruvians have a monopoly on the cinchona tree, the bark of which is used to produce quinine. Numerous expeditions to the Peruvian interior have failed to bring back viable cuttings of the plant. The company approaches Merrick Tremayne to lead an expedition into the Peruvian interior. Tremayne is a former employee injured in the opium trade and has family connections to Peru through both his father and grandfather. He is to be accompanied by his old naval colleague…

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Stephenson and Galland

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O is the new hefty tome from the pen of Neal Stephenson. But this is not a tech or maths heavy read like Seveneves or Anathem. This time he has brought along fellow author Nicole Gallard who manages to considerably lighten the tone. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O can best be described as a romp. It is science fiction that never takes itself all that seriously. Even the acronym provides a cute running gag in the early part of the book. In 1851, witchcraft died in the world. In the present day, a group of American military scientists are trying to bring it back using quantum theory. When they manage to do so, they use witchcraft to send their operatives back in time and manipulate history. And then their problems really begin. D.O.D.O is narrated in a documentary style. Much of it is the memoir of Melisande Stokes, one of the early operatives of the organisation, stuck in 1851 as witchcraft is dying and writing for future prosperity. But there are also plenty of other diary entries, emails, memos and letters and even an ancient Viking Saga entitled “The Lay of Walmart”. There is…

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott
Fantasy , Review / 15/08/2017

The English fantasy resurgence continues with the delightful and strange Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott. A debut which joins the likes of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell), Tim Clare (The Honours) and Padriac O’Donell (The Maker of Swans), as another uniquely and intrinsically English take on the genre without resorting to the tired or the Tolkienesque. Rotherweird is a town out of time. Administratively cut off from the rest of England during Elizabethan times to hide a terrible and dangerous secret. The school’s history master disappears after illegally investigating pre-1800 Rotherweird history and strange forces are starting to rise again. The action is precipitated by the arrival of two new ‘outsiders’ to town. Jeremiah Oblong, the new modern history master, a typical English fop in the mould of Arthur Dent, and Veronal Slickstone, wealthy new owner of The Manor. They are surrounded by a colourful bunch of Dickensian characters with names like Orelia Roc, Vixen Valourhand and Sidney Snorkel. The first half of Rotherweird is a delight. Not only doling out small hints of its fantasy setting but also full of comedic set pieces based on Rotherweirdian traditions including the annual coracle race down the river Rother where contestants…

Crossing the Lines by Sulari Gentill
Crime , Fantasy , Literature , Review / 09/08/2017

Sulari Gentill is best known for her historical crime fiction series starring Roland Sinclair. Set mainly in Australia between the World Wars, Sinclair mixes it with historical figures and solves crimes with the help of a gang of bohemian friends. Crossing the Lines is a long way from Roland Sinclair, a speculative fiction deconstruction of the crime genre and the writing process. But there are echoes of Sinclair as one of the main characters in this book, the crime author Madeleine d’Leon, has a long running historical crime fiction series set in 1916 about a crime solving domestic servant called Veronica Killwilly, and is also trying to break free of the shackles of the expectations that series has created.   So far so meta. And in fact Crossing the Lines is full of meta-moments and situations like this. The premise is that d’Leon feels compelled to write a new crime novel where the main character is a literary fiction author called Ned McGinnity. At the same time, literary fiction author, Ned McGinnity, decides to write his new literary fiction novel about a crime writer called Madeleine d’Leon. Gentill effortlessly segues between these two narratives as they bleed into each other and it is never clear which is  the author and which is the fictional creation (while both are of course both authors and fictional creations).  Neither the crime novel nor the literary fiction novel in this book, taken on…

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence
Fantasy , Review / 27/07/2017

After two successful related trilogies, Red Sister is Mark Lawrance’s first volume of a new fantasy series with a cold open and a literally killer opening line: It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size. Peasant girl Nona is taken to magical school/nunnery because she has untapped powers that have kept her alive. She learns about her powers as she tries to navigate the social and academic rules of her new world. In this respect, Red Sister comes across as a fairly typical “magical academy” novel complete with wise Dumbledore-style head nun and Snape-like poisons teacher. As is usual in these novels, it is the kids who either save the day or make things worse by making assumptions or not trusting the adults in charge. To his credit, the narrative and characters are engaging and Lawrence does manage to upend some of the cliches associated with this genre. The nunnery sits within a fascinating world. A ribbon of life around the equator of a world slowly freezing, warmed by an artificial moon put in the sky thousands of years before when the original colonists came from across the stars. Different groups…

Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan
Fantasy , Recommended , Young Adult / 23/06/2017

Singing My Sister Down could have been subtitled Margo Lanagan’s Greatest Hits. The title story, which also opens this collection, won a bunch of national and international fantasy awards and was short listed for a number of others. This and nine of the others stories come from earlier collections of Lanagan’s work, the multihued – White Time, Black Juice, Red Spikes and Yellowcake – many of which were also shortlisted for or won their own awards. So these hand picked stories might be considered the best of Lanagan’s best, clearly putting her in an international league of great fantasy short story writers. Singing My Sister Down, the story of a family come to watch the ritual killing of one of their members – consigned to sink into a tar pit – is starkly effective. Many of the other stories are built around ideas that can only lead to trouble – a man who kills clowns, the person who ferries the dead, a magician spurned. Some of the others, particularly two new stories written for this collection are off-kilter retellings of well known fairy tales – Sleeping Beauty in Not Quite Ogre and The Princess and the Frog in The Wood-Queen’s…

The End of the Day by Claire North
Fantasy , Review / 29/05/2017

It is a brave author who will take on the personification of Death after Terry Pratchett. Claire North almost sidesteps the issue by instead focussing on the Harbinger of Death, the one who goes before as a courtesy or a warning, currently an ordinary Englishman called Charlie. Charlie is a bit of a cipher. A non-threatening English everyman who seems to be able to relate to (and communicate with) practically everyone he meets and tends to look at the bright side of life (and death). It seems a bit limiting for Death to only have one, human, harbinger in a world of seven billion people but while there is a backoffice to support him, there is no suggestion that Charlie is part of a bigger team of harbingers fanning out around the world. As with earlier North novels, The End of the Day is a bit of a travelogue. Charlie finds himself in Greenland, Mexico, Russia, Syria, Nigeria… to name a few. Charlie is sent to these places carrying particular meaningful gifts for those he visits. Not all of those people die. Some of them can take the visit and the message behind the gift as a warning and change…

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 21/02/2017

After a sojourn in the country, PC Peter Grant returns to the heart of London and back into this series’ central mystery in The Hanging Tree. Once again, Ben Aaronovitch manages the entertaining high wire act of police procedural, urban fantasy, wry social commentary, and geek Easter egg hunt. Lady Tyburn, one of the river goddesses of London, asks Peter to help her daughter Olivia who has been found at the scene of a death by drug overdose. Along with Olivia, the victim, Christina Chorley, is one of a group of ultra-rich school girls looking for thrills and trouble. The plot allows Aaronovitch to explore the wealthy side of London – he stages an action scene in Harrods and PC Grant gets to visit country estates and London terrace houses with subterranean swimming pools straight out of Grand Designs. Aaronovitch also spends some time expanding his universe further with a group of special forces American practitioners (wizards) appearing on the scene, hereditary witches who have no truck with the patriarchal wizarding world and a deeper dive into the demi-monde. In amongst these new players, Peter is once again tousling with his old foe the Faceless Man and his old colleague…

The Possessions by Sarah Flannery Murphy
Fantasy , Literature , Review , Romance / 08/02/2017

Sarah Flannery Murphy’s debut novel is a difficult one to pigeon-hole. It is on its face a high concept speculative fiction that could almost be described as literary fantasy but with a dark, contemporary edge. But it also has shades of romance and thriller. Even the name of the book provides a number of ambiguous entries into the themes that Murphy explores. But first, the concept. In Murphy’s world there are people who are able to channel the souls of the deceased. By taking a particular drug and using certain triggers they can allow their bodies to be possessed by someone who has died. Eurydice, or Edie, is a ‘body’, working in an establishment known as Elysium, the only sanctioned game in town for people who wish to spend time with their departed loved ones. Edie is the longest serving of the bodies at Elysium, the work causing most to burn out. While there is nothing physical about the trade, the analogies with prostitution run strongly through the narrative. Two things happen to shake up Edie’s world. The first is a man who comes to spend time with his wife Sylvia who accidentally drowned while they were on a holiday….

Fair Rebel by Steph Swainston
Fantasy , Recommended , Review / 30/01/2017

Steph Swainston burst onto the modern fantasy scene back in 2004 with the first of the Fourlands novels The Year of Our War. While there were some familiar elements, Swainston, much like fellow English fantasy authors like China Mieville, created a new type of fantasy world that was undeniably modern. There were no orcs, no elves, no dwarves and no dragons. Instead, the main character was a drug addicted immortal with the ability to fly, wore t-shirts and jeans and helped to fight a centuries long war against an implacable, insectile enemy. Now, ten years after the last main narrative book and five years after a backstory prequel, Swainston explosively returns to the Fourlands. Following a funeral, the narrative drops straight into the most recent push on the insect-dominated Paperlands. Fifteen years have passed since the events of The Modern World, and after a fair gap, even those who have been following the series probably need a reminder of the key elements of this world, although it’s uniqueness makes these details easier to remember. Swainston and her main narrator Jant, also known as Comet the messenger, acknowledge that it has been a long time between drinks and drop in refreshers…

Top 5 Fantasy Books 2016
Top Fives / 08/12/2016

Whether you’re into epic fantasy, urban fantasy or new weird, the Pile’s Top 5 Fantasy books for 2016 ranges across a wide spectrum of speculative fiction. Angela Slatter’s Vigil was an Australian debut urban fantasy novel from a writer who has already received plenty of notice for her short stories.   Anthony Ryan’s The Waking Fire was the first novel in a steampunk-inspired epic fantasy series with great characters, well-written action and, of course, plenty of dragons.     China Mieville once again changed gears in The Last Days of New Paris a book in which an eldrich weapon has brought to life the visions of the Surrealist art movement on the streets of World War Two Paris.   Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans was a debut set in contemporary England but with an old world feel, with magic and mystery tied up with the written word   Den Patrick’s The Girl on the Liar’s Throne tied up a beguiling and inventive Italianate modern fantasy trilogy.  

The White City by Simon Morden
Fantasy , Review / 02/12/2016

Simon Morden returns to the magical world of Down for second time in The White City. He rejoins the survivors of Down Station (reviewed here) as they try and come to terms with events and the world they find themselves in. They came to Down, Narnia-like, through a doorway in a disused tube station as London burned around them. They found a dangerous world populated by people who came through different doorways from London at different times in its history. That first book ran very much along lines of some classic fantasy – people find themselves in a magical world and have to learn to use the powers that they gain there to survive. The White City turns out to be a very different proposition to the first book in this series. With the rules established in Down Station, Morden sets about not only exploring those rules but also breaking them apart, digging deeper into the world and revealing depths that were only very vaguely glimpsed in the first volume. There is a bit of a quest element to this book as the characters travel to the White City, reputedly the only permanent city in Down, where answers may be found that may…

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 27/09/2016

Heidi Heilig’s The Girl From Everywhere is a heady mix of time travel, fantasy, romance and historical fiction for young adults. Nix Song, a sixteen year old lives on a tall ship called the Temptation, captained by her father Slate. Slate has the power to navigate the ship anywhere in time and space so long as he has a written map to guide him. But there is only one thing Slate wants – to return to Honolulu in 1865 and prevent his partner from dying just after she gave birth to Nix. The question that troubles Nix is what might happen to her and her life if he succeeds. Nix is probably the least interesting character in the book. A plucky teenager with father issues and a burgeoning but fairly chaste love life, caught between her roguish shipmate Kashmir and the more straightlaced, shore-bound Blake. But this blandness also makes Nix the perfect guide to this world for the intended audience of the novel, which would be teenage girls at the younger end of the young adult spectrum. As if the time travel element is not enough, there is more than a smattering of fantasy in The Girl from Everywhere…

Lord of the Darkwood by Lian Hearn
Fantasy , Review / 15/09/2016

Lord of the Darkwood is the conclusion to the mythological prequel series of Lian Hearn’s bestselling Otori books. As with the previous volume Emperor of the Eight Islands (reviewed here), Lord of the Darkwood is actually a compilation of two shorter books the first called Lord of the Darkwood and the second and final volume called The Tengu’s Game of Go. This again is to the benefit of the overall tale as the first volume of the two is practically all set up for the concluding part. In fact the titular character, Shikanoko, hardly makes an appearance in the first volume and then only in the distance of another character’s point of view chapter. Actually, as the plot progresses it appears that the second title is probably more apt for the whole series. Much like the gods in Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, the story seems to boil down to a game played by superior beings. Some characters actually get a glimpse of the Tengu, or spirits, playing a game of Go with their lives on the board. So that what seems to them like free will often turns out to be either direct manipulation by forces well beyond their…

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne
Fantasy , Review / 02/09/2016

Probably nothing that is written in this review will affect the juggernaut of what is essentially the eighth Harry Potter book. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the rehearsal script of the new two-part play set nineteen years after the events in the Deathly Hallows, returns readers to familiar locales, spells and situations but with a new generation of teenagers at the helm. The centre of The Cursed Child is two confused, fairly typical teens. Albus Severus Potter, middle child of Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, is failing to deal with family fame and has been sorted into (gasp!) Slytherin. While his new best friend Scorpius Malfoy, son of Harry’s schoolyard nemesis Draco, is subject to a painful whispering campaign about his parentage. But plenty of loved characters also feature either in main parts of the plot or dream sequences. For long-time fans of the books this is an opportunity to revisit characters like Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Draco in their middle age and see how their exploits both define and restrict them. At the centre of the action of The Cursed Child is a tricky narrative device – the timeturner. Rowling used this device to great effect in…

Smoke by Dan Vyleta
Fantasy , Review / 12/08/2016

Dan Vyleta’s new high concept fantasy novel was inspired by a quote from Charles Dickens that ponders how much worse London’s pollution would be if “moral pestilence” were visible “how terrible the revelation”. In Vyleta’s nineteenth century, Dickensian alternate England, this is exactly what happens. People smoke when they sin or let their passions get away from them, with the soot that is left behind a visible reminder of that sin. Breathing in someone else’s smoke can also cause a loss of control. Smoke opens strongly with a focus on two teenage boys at an upper class boarding school. The Oxford school is where the well-to-do send their children to be trained in how to control the smoke. Clothes are checked for traces of soot and punishments handed out for those who lose control. In Vyleta’s world, despite changes to people’s physiology, their psychology is not changed and a strict class system is in force. The action in Smoke heats up when Thomas and Charlie stumble on to a realisation that all is not as they have been led to believe by their elders. Harry Potter style, the two are hunted and go on the run with a teenage girl,…

The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North
Fantasy , Review , Thriller / 21/07/2016

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, Claire North has put yet another spin on themes and ideas that she explored in her previous two novels The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August and Touch (reviewed here) . Identity, belonging, individuality, love and choice. Again, the main character is affected by a high fantasy concept that puts her at odds with the world. In this case, Hope Arden is forgotten by everyone she meets almost as soon as she leaves them. Hope is a more tragic figure than North’s previous protagonists. She has been living on her own and by her wits since she was sixteen and her family forgot her. Unable to make a lasting connection with anyone, existing the eternal now, filling the empty space in her life with knowledge with which she peppers her narrative. In both previous novels there were societies of entities with similar powers, but even when Hope does meet another of her “kind” they keep forgetting each other and eventually drift apart. The Sudden Appearance of Hope does not work as well as North’s previous two novels. Many of the themes, revolve around an insidious app called Perfection that encourages people to give up their…

Vigil by Angela Slatter
Crime , Fantasy , Review / 19/07/2016

Angela Slatter, who has won a number of international awards for her short fiction, goes to Brisbane, or Brisneyland as she prefers to style it, for her first full length novel. Vigil is an urban fantasy which sees the streets of Australia’s third largest city shared between the Normals and the supernatural Weyrd. As is often the case, only a select few Normals are aware of this sharing arrangement. The Weyrd community keeps very much to itself and has put limits on the excesses of its members, which previously included preying on the Normal population. Enter Verity Fassbinder, half-human, half Weyrd able to walk in both worlds, with super-strength from her Weyrd side. Verity works as a freelance investigator, partly in penance for the sins of her Weyrd father Grigor, a kinderfresser, who killed normal children for the highborn Weyrd. Verity is tasked by the Weyrd Council to investigate when children once again start going missing. Soon her troubles mount, with dying sirens (the avian kind), a monster roaming the streets, rampant angels and the search for the missing son of a millionaire. While in genre terms this is strictly fantasy, Vigil plays out strongly along crime fiction lines with…

Nightfall by Halpern and Kujawinski
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 15/07/2016

Nightfall comes with a unique, if bizarre, premise. On the Island of Bliss fourteen years of daylight are followed by fourteen years of night. For the daylight years, humans live on Bliss happily going about their business. But as night starts to fall they prepare to depart, knowing they will not return for fourteen years. These preparations following a series of bizarre ancient rules regarding how they should leave the houses that their ancestors originally found fully furnished. Just as the sun disappears and the tide goes out to the horizon, the local fur traders come by boat to take the populace away to the desert lands where there is a constant cycle of three days light to three days dark. Marin is a teenager, born as her parents returned to Bliss fourteen years before she has never seen the total darkness. Her twin brother Kana has always had trouble with his vision, trouble that seems to be alleviated by the approaching dark. And their friend Line is struggling to bring up his seven year old brother Francis following his parent’s death. When the trio are left behind on Bliss, their relationship to each other and their survival skills are…

The Fireman by Joe Hill
Review , Science Fiction , Thriller / 14/06/2016

Another day, another apocalypse. In Joe Hill’s latest novel, the apocalypse is brought about by a virus, nicknamed dragonscale. Dragonscale causes people to exhibit black and gold tattoo-like markings all over their bodies and, when stressed, burst into flame. The sudden onset of this disease, creating conflagrations across the globe, leads to a societal collapse and a clean-versus-infected mentality in the population (at least in the United States). “Cremation crews” scour the countryside looking to kill the infected in order to stem the spread of the disease. But unlike most epidemic apocalypse books, The Fireman is on the side of the infected who find that dragonscale may not be quite as fatal as people first think. The centre of the The Fireman is not the titular character but a pregnant nurse – Harper Willows. Harper is a great character – compassionate, resourceful, steely when she needs to be – and fairly kick-arse, even when nine months pregnant. In fact most of the characters with significant agency and personality in the novel are women, a point which Hill can’t help but pat himself on the back for and reference directly in one passage of dialogue. And while there are some women…