The best science fiction and fantasy – review roundup

Eric Brown
·4-min read

Mark Lawrence has produced more than a dozen novels in a decade, and The Girl and the Stars (Harper Voyager, £14.99) is one of the best. His previous series, The Book of the Ancestor, was set in the lush equatorial region of the planet Abeth. The Girl and the Stars explores that world’s harsh polar region, where the temperature is 40 below zero and the Ictha people eke out a precarious existence on inhospitable ice plains. Life is harsh, and the halt and lame – plus those who don’t conform – are sacrificed so that others might live. Sixteen-year-old Yaz and her younger brother find themselves cast out of the tribe at the Pit of the Missing, literally thrown into a hellish netherworld beneath the polar ice cap. What follows is not only a thrilling fight for survival among the sub-realm’s demons, monsters and lost tribes, but a revelatory coming of age story as Yaz learns the truth about her world and her place in it. The Girl and the Stars is a compelling picaresque that melds fantasy and science fiction to stirring effect.

The Girl With All the Gifts author MR Carey shifts seamlessly from fantasy to science fiction with The Book of Koli (Orbit, £8.99), an apocalyptic dystopia set in a post-climate crisis world very different from our own. The genetic manipulation of nature has led to man-eating trees and monstrous wild animals. Teenager Koli lives in the enclave of Mythen Rood, a village surrounded by inimical nature and governed by a select few known as Ramparts, an elite who can access ancient technology. In a first-person narrative, the barely literate Koli tells the story of how he craves to become one of the elite, and how his life changes when he steals a piece of technology – an AI that rapidly becomes a character in its own right. Thrust out into the wilderness, with the wise-cracking Japanese AI as a companion, Koli embarks on a journey as perilous as it is enlightening. The Book of Koli is the enthralling first volume of a projected trilogy.

In Chosen Ones (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), the first adult novel by the bestselling young adult author Veronica Roth, she ditches the teenage angst of the Divergent series and tackles some seriously grown-up themes. Ten years before the novel opens, five teenagers known as the Chosen Ones defeated an evil entity called the Dark One, whose malign energy created natural disasters that killed tens of thousands of people worldwide. The Chosen Ones had fame thrust on them, and at a cost. Through her heroine Sloane Andrews, Roth examines the psychological effects: empty celebrity and debilitating flashbacks. Ten years after the Dark One was vanquished, a Chosen One dies and Sloane must face the fact that the evil has returned. A skilled storyteller, Roth examines issues of racism and responsibility in a well-plotted supernatural thriller, the first in a series.

Zoraida Córdova’s Incendiary (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) is another fantasy epic with a plucky but vulnerable heroine: this time a lush reimagining of the Spanish Inquisition spiced with a fascinating magical system. Renata Convida belongs to the Moria people, who are blessed with occult abilities; Renata can steal the memories of others, leaving her victims as little more than hollow shells. As a child she worked for King Fernando, reading the memories of spies and enemies. Ten years later, after being snatched from the royal court, Renata is on the side of the Whispers, rebels who are working to overthrow the king. After a slow-burn start, the novel picks up pace, and the thrills and reversals of fortune come thick and fast. Incendiary is the first book of a duology.

The four linked novellas in Christina Henry’s Looking Glass (Titan, £7.99) return to the world of her novels Alice and Red Queen, in which she gave Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a macabre modernisation. The stories feature Alice’s younger sister Elizabeth, a now grown-up Alice and her werewolf lover Hatcher, and dramatise their conflicts with characters monstrously transformed from Lewis Carroll’s originals by Henry’s grim-dark and fecund imagination. The best of the four volumes are the Girl in Amber, in which Alice, invested with magical abilities, fights off nightmarish creatures in a phantasmagorical house of horrors; and When I First Came to Town, featuring Hatcher as young man in the Old City, where he is a prizefighter pitched against the monstrous Grinder. For the most part Henry ably captures Carroll’s period tone, aside from the occasional jarring Americanism. However, while the stories work well as metaphor, with Alice as everywoman, the protagonist’s magical ability does tend to undercut tension and jeopardy.

Eric Brown’s latest novel, The Martian Menace, is published by Titan.