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Spellbinding powers of the imagination

Gwen Ansell reviews some of the latest science fiction and fantasy titles.

Blackout by Connie Willis (Gollancz)

Willis’s pair of time-travel novels set during World War II, Blackout and All-Clear, have won the 11th Hugo Award. It’s a deserved win: no writer captures as convincingly as Willis the trauma of living as a visitor in the past while knowing the future. Only Blackout has made it to our shores so far: the book in which things begin to fall apart as the sheer volume of time tourists exiting their Oxford lab starts to disturb the physics of the process. Willis’s London during the Blitz is authentic, moving and beautifully evoked. Her Oxford in the year 2060 is less so — no social networks and altogether too much of the verbal tweed with which American writers love to decorate their vision of England.

Shadow Chaser
(Chronicles of Siala Book Two) by Alexey Pehov (Simon & Schuster)

It’s clear that, after the book and film successes of Sergei Lukanyenko’s Night Watch series, publishers are looking to find another Russian fantasy work with similar international appeal. Pehov’s series had mass sales in Russia but unless a great deal has been lost in translation this one is merely a national variant on standard fantasy tropes, with little of the originality or edge of Night Watch. Not entirely reformed thief Shadow Harold is an engaging, witty rogue of a hero but there’s nothing fresh about the book’s magic, monsters or plot. Shadow Chaser sees us at the inevitable ’10 green bottles” stage of Harold’s quest, when every encounter winnows the numbers of his mismatched band further.

Sea of Ghosts
(Gravedigger Chronicles Book One) by Alan Campbell (Tor)

Scottish author Alan Campbell’s debut trilogy, The Deepgate Codex, introduced a dark new fantasy voice with a gift for building very strange worlds indeed: worlds built on the detritus of steampunk civilisations but infused with angelic and demonic enchantments. His new Sea of Ghosts contains similar tensions, in an Empire slowly being contaminated by the artefacts of the magical Unmer race. In a drowning prison city, the book pits disgraced imperial soldier Granger against alchemist and crime lord Maskelyn and a Machiavellian nun, in a battle for control over a powerful young psychic who may be his daughter. Granger rediscovers his humanity as the acid seas turn his body slowly to stone; Maskelyn gets pretty close to rediscovering relativity. The Empire is a terrifying, intricate world. Replete with even more baroque horror than Deepgate, the series has gallows wit, sea battles, layers of intrigue and tantalising suspense at the end of book one.

Songs of the Earth
by Elspeth Cooper (Gollancz)

In a vaguely Celtic world, a rigid Church martial has banished magic. Yet magic was vital to keep the Veil between the world and its sinister alternate realm strong. Enter Gair, a handsome young orphan of mysterious origins, with the strongest magic anyone has seen for generations. Escaping torture and tribulation, he joins the remnants of a mysterious ancient order, is admitted to magic school, makes enemies, finds lovers and fights monsters. Although Cooper spins words smoothly, this cod-feudal flummery is far too familiar and no crystal ball is necessary to see how the series will unfold.

A Kingdom Besieged by Raymond E Feist (Harper/Voyager)

Yet another instalment of Feist’s seemingly endless Midkemia saga. The world has been mapped to death, the characters are cardboard and the plot devices tired. Feist has worked on some interesting, intelligent non-Midkemia fantasies (the Daughter of Empire series with Janny Wurts, for example) but the final conflagration for this
particular world is long overdue.

The Wise Man’s Fear
(Day Two of the Kingkiller Chronicle) by Patrick Rothfuss (Gollancz)

Retired wizard and magical warrior Kvothe, trying to live quietly, is still dictating his life story to a chronicler. His narrative often gets interrupted: by the undead, brutal mercenaries and cadging customers. In this huge (990-page) second volume, Kvothe recalls how he developed his martial skills and magic, continued his search for his parents’ killers — and fell in love. Rothfuss remains an engaging tale-spinner but this book is not as compelling as Day One, The Name of the Wind. Sometimes the attention to descriptive detail overwhelms — it’s reminiscent of stories based on role-player games or the style of potboiler master LE Modesitt Jr. And that detail too often slows the pace of the central mystery: a secret murderous brotherhood, their secret pursuers and Kvothe’s loss of his own powers — the thread intended to hold the series together. Nevertheless, you’ll still want to catch Day Three when it dawns.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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