The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell
Fantasy , Historical , Review / 15/01/2018

Gothic horror is back in vogue and it does not get much more gothic than Laura Purcell’s debut The Silent Companions. Purcell has thrown everything at her scenario – an opening scene in an asylum, a pregnant widow still in mourning, a creepy village outside of an even creepier manor house, whispers of witchcraft, surly servants, disappearing curio shops, mysteriously locked doors, black cats and strange noises. And the icing on this decidedly black cake are the unnerving, lifelike wooden figures, the silent companions of the title, that seem to move on their own and leave wood shavings and splinters in their wake. It is 1865 and Elise Bainbridge is in mourning for the loss of her husband Rupert. She is retreating to the family estate known as The Bridge with Rupert’s young cousin Sarah and from the start things go wrong. There is only a skeleton staff in the house and locals from the village will not work there due to historical rumours of witchcraft. Almost immediately strange things start to happen – including odd noises in the night – and they become stranger when a previously locked door to the attic comes open revealing the lifelike wooden figure…

Top Five Fantasy – 2017
Fantasy , Top Fives / 15/12/2017

Very different fantasy novels make up the top five (plus three honourable mentions) for 2017: Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird was fantasy that was also a little bit Dickens and a little bit Monty Python and centred around a forgotten town with a strange past and stranger residents in the middle of England.             Australian fantasy author Angela Slatter delivered the second installment of her engaging noir-crime meets urban fantasy series starring half-weyrd detective Verity Fassbinder on the mean streets of Brisbane in Corpselight.             Natasha Pulley continued to impress with her second novel – a historical and mystical journey into deepest darkest Peru in The Bedlam Stacks.               Joe Hill’s novella collection Strange Weather was part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction and all class.               And Margo Lanagan’s best-of short story collection Singing My Sister Down reaffirmed why she is one of Australia (and the World’s) best fantasy writers.               Honourable mentions: It Devours by Fink and Cranor – a novel set in the world of Night Vale Red Sister by Mark Lawrence…

It Devours by Fink and Cranor
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 30/11/2017

Fans of the long running Welcome to Night Vale podcast will have been eagerly waiting the new novel from its creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. While the first Welcome to Night Vale novelisation felt like an extension of and introduction to the world of the podcast, It Devours is an experiment in something a little different. Nilanjana is a scientist who came to Night Vale four years earlier but is still considered an outsider. She meets Darryl, a proselytiser for the Church of the Smiling God, a bizarre newish religion which gave him a sense of community when his parents died. But as is always the case in Night Vale, something is not quite right. Pretty soon the town is facing an existential threat and the two come together to try and save Night Vale. While no prior knowledge of Night Vale is required, it certainly helps, and those in the know will get much more out the book. The narrative is partially based on a long running storyline, visits some well known Night Vale locales and features plenty of regular characters from the podcast. To enjoy the ride, those unfamiliar with the bizarre little town of Night Vale…

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
Fantasy , Review , Science Fiction / 27/11/2017

With many short story collections, it is often instructive to read the author’s comments before diving in. At the front of Neal Gaiman’s recent collection Trigger Warning there was a general overview and then some insight into the genesis of each story in the collection. Joe Hill references Gaiman in his afterward where he talks about the idea behind this collection. And that reason is that after producing a couple of massive tomes (including 2016’s post-apocalyptic doorstop The Fireman) he wanted to get back to writing that was “lean and mean”. As he says, short novels are “all killer no filler”, and goes on to list some of his favourite authors at this length including Gaiman, David Mitchell and even HG Wells.  In Strange Weather, Hill has delivered four novellas which, if nothing else, serve as a great advertisement for his range. The four stories traverse a range of ideas and character and each is, in its own very different way, a killer.  The first story, Snapshot, starts out feeling very genre. Set mainly in 1988 it features A thirteen-year-old nerdy narrator (although the knowing narration itself comes from when he is an adult), a mysterious dark force that threatens him and people he loves. Possibly a bit of a Stranger Things vibe to it, which is not a bad thing. Hill effectively uses his horror tropes to…

The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig
Fantasy , Review , Young Adult / 06/11/2017

Heidi Heilig opens The Ship Beyond Time mere minutes after the cliffhanger end of its prequel The Girl from Everywhere. It is 1884 and sixteen-year-old Nix, her father and the crew of their ship, the Temptation are on the run from Hawaiian forces, unhappy about the robbery that they were involved in. What their pursuers do not know, but readers of this series do, is that Nix and her father are Navigators, they have the power to send their ship to any time and any place (including mythical places) so long as they have a map to guide them. After a bit of map hopping early in the piece, The Ship Beyond Time settles down for most of its length in one locale. In this case it is the mythical utopian island of Ker-Ys, somewhere off the coast of France. They have come there on the promise of another Navigator, Crowhurst, that he has the power to change time. For Nix, who spent the last novel trying to prevent her father going back in time to save her mother for fear that she would never be born, this is a temptation too great to turn up. Once again, there is…

All The Galaxies by Philip Miller
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 27/10/2017

All the Galaxies is a book that is hard to categorise. It is an odd mixture of dystopian vision, some light horror with a religious twist, a dark, often satirical, vision of modern media and an investigation of a secular afterlife. If a bookshop needed to pigeonhole, and such a shelf existed, it might best be described as literary speculative fiction.  The book opens with a boy who names himself Tarka. Tarka has died and has found himself on another planet beside his childhood dog, a border terrier named Kim. It turns out that Kim can talk and is to be Tarka’s guide to an afterlife which encompasses ‘all the galaxies’ and their attendant stars and planets. After a while getting used to this idea, Tarka asks Kim if they can go and find his mother who had died years before. The rest of Tarka and Kim’s strange journey across the universe is in pursuit of this goal. There are beautiful descriptions of this secular afterlife:  Tarka looked down. A stream of lights flowed below them, like a river. A pale planet hung in the void like a pebble. The lights flowed, almost parallel to Tarka and Kim, led by a brighter light, and smaller bodies fanned out behind …  What? Tarka said.  Humans – reborn like you, Kim said …  Below, far below, slowly spun the vast dish…

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Fantasy , Literature , Review / 03/10/2017

Matt Haig often takes an outsider’s view of the world. In his debut novel The Last Family in England, the main character was the family dog. In The Humans, Haig looked at the world through the eyes of an alien trying to understand humanity. He takes a similar tack but from a very different angle in How to Stop Time. While The Humans was about placing humanity in space, How to Stop Time is about looking at people from outside the realm of time. Tom Hazard is an “albatross”. Born in 1581, he has a condition which stopped him ageing at a normal rate at around thirteen. Since then he has aged at one fifteenth the normal speed. So that in the present he is 439 years old but still looks like he is in his forties. Hazard’s condition means he is always on the move, trying not to be found out by starting fresh every eight years in a new location. But he is also beholden to a shadowy organisation of Albatrosses, blackmailed into carrying out missions for their leader Hendrich with a promise of finding his missing daughter Marion. The narrative skips effortlessly between various time periods. Tom…

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 , Recommended , 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…