April 15, 2024


Science It Works

The best recent science fiction and fantasy reviews roundup | Science fiction books

CK McDonnell, The Stranger Times

Standup comedian and writer Caimh McDonnell’s first novel as CK McDonnell, The Stranger Times (Bantam, £14.99), has already been optioned for TV, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a filmic romp with great characters, a jet-propelled plot, and a winning premise. The Stranger Times is a down-at-heel newspaper staffed by a gallery of lovable hacks and edited by a cynical, splenetic alcoholic. Based in a derelict Mancunian church, the paper covers wacky supernatural, occult and bizarre stories – think the Fortean Times run on a shoestring. Fleeing a failed marriage, university dropout Hannah Willis is taken on by the paper – and promoted to assistant editor within two hours of landing the job. After investigating a series of strange deaths, Hannah and her colleagues learn that the tall stories they trade in might have some basis in fact, and soon find themselves on the receiving end of malign forces. McDonnell combines gonzo humour and neat character studies in the first volume of an urban fantasy series.

 Radio Life

Derek B Miller’s fourth novel, Radio Life (Jo Fletcher, £16.99), is a gritty, post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller set in a 25th-century wasteland America. Elimisha is a 16-year-old ”archive runner” working for the Commonwealth. Its aim is to record knowledge of the Gone World in the hope of resurrecting the technology of the past. Opposed to the Commonwealth are the Keepers, fanatics who will stop at nothing to ensure the destruction of old technology, which they claim was responsible for the apocalypse. On her 10th mission to deliver old tech to a Commonwealth archive, Elimisha is pursued by Keepers and takes refuge deep underground, where she stumbles across a cache of Gone World tech, a Pandora’s box whose opening will have far-reaching repercussions. Radio Life is a complex mosaic novel filtered through the viewpoints of a large cast that builds a convincing picture of a future world riven by opposing ideologies.

Hall of Smoke

Canadian HM Long’s Hall of Smoke (Titan, £8.99), the first book of a duology, blends epic fantasy and a Viking-inspired culture in an assured, fast-paced first-person narrative. Hessa, a priestess of the goddess of war, has the ability to turn her enemies’ bones to dust with a single scream. When tasked by her goddess to slay a traveller, Hessa disobeys and is banished to the mountains. She returns to her village only to find it pillaged and her loved ones slaughtered. In a bid to atone for her disobedience, she sets out to track down and slay the traveller, thus ensuring herself a place in the afterlife realm of the High Halls where she will be reunited with the souls of her family. Set against a backdrop of nations at war, Hessa’s labyrinthine quest of redemption and self-discovery pitches her against not only blood-thirsty soldiers sacking her homeland, but a pantheon of vengeful gods and demons. By turns gripping and poignant, Hall of Smoke
is a compelling debut.


Following three successful fantasy novels written with her parents Mike and Linda Carey, Louise Carey switches genres with the hi-tech, cyberpunk-flavoured Inscape (Gollancz, £14.99). The setting is a post-meltdown future world where society is governed by competing technology companies barricaded in affluent “affiliated zones”, outside which are the bandit-riddled “unaffiliated zones”. Tanta works as a trainee agent for the InTech company, and her first assignment is to lead a team into an unaffiliated zone to retrieve stolen software files. Despite the mission failing with the loss of three colleagues, Tanta finds herself promoted to fully accredited agent. Her first job is to investigate how the software was stolen; what follows is a page-turning thriller in which Tanta soon discovers that trusted colleagues are not playing by the same rules. Inscape is the first of a trilogy.

Ready Player Two

Ernest Cline’s 2011 debut Ready Player One was a publishing sensation, and fans have had to wait almost 10 years for the sequel, Ready Player Two (Century, £20). At the end of the first novel, set in a bleak, ravaged 2045 where humankind sought refuge in a virtual world known as OASIS, teenager Wade Watts won the ultimate virtual reality supergame and inherited the fortune of OASIS creator James Halliday. Now a multimillionaire, the lonely and reclusive Watts discovers that he has been bequeathed more than he bargained for: Halliday has left him the secret of the OASIS Neural Interface, which directs VR straight into the user’s brain. Watts releases it to the waiting world, and Cline charts the implications in a virtual picaresque that overstays its welcome by a hundred pages. Ready Player Two showcases characters the reader will come to care nothing about amid tedious info-dumping: diehard fans of Ready Player One might find this retread satisfying, but readers new to Cline will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Eric Brown’s latest novel is Murder by the Book (Severn House).