The best recent science fiction and fantasy – review roundup

Eric Brown
·4-min read

Polish fabulist Andrzej Sapkowski, author of the bestselling Witcher series of epic fantasies now filmed for Netflix, begins a new trilogy with The Tower of Fools, translated by David French (Gollancz, £20). It’s a typically sprawling narrative set in 15th-century Europe during the chaotic Hussite revolution, in which religious reformers fought Catholic armies loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor. Noble Reynevan, physician and practitioner of the dark arts, is caught in the boudoir of Adèle of Stercza. When her brothers give chase, one of them dies in pursuit, and the survivors vow vengeance. What follows is the record of Reynevan’s perilous flight south through central Europe, in which our cocksure hero is pursued by the brothers and various political factions. He’s accompanied by knights, rebels and new love Nicolette, as well as Samson, a demon in human form. Sapkowski peppers the story with telling period detail, vivid and violent set pieces, and scatological humour. After a slow start, in which the historical and political backdrop is filled in by characters discoursing at length, the narrative settles into a bloody but satisfying picaresque.

Tony Ballantyne’s second collection of stories, Midway (Infinity Plus, £8.99), blends science fiction and fantasy in a potent, poignant mix. A writer contemplates his father’s death in a series of framing vignettes in which he discusses life, death and the process of grieving with his grandmother’s ghost. Interspersed with these dialogues are nine stories in which he attempts to come to terms with his loss. They range from contemporary tales in which characters are faced with morally conflicting choices to tragicomic fantasies tackling ageing and death. The volume closes with the excellent title story, in which a man travels the galaxy writing about alien worlds for an audience back on Earth, only to question his motives at the midpoint of his journey. Ballantyne’s moving, quietly profound stories present flawed human beings confronting the vicissitudes of life with varying degrees of success. Superb.

Peter F Hamilton brings his Salvation trilogy to a satisfying climax with The Saints of Salvation (Macmillan, £20). In the second volume, the human race was pitched against the implacable Olyix, an alien race intending to harvest Homo sapiens as offerings to their deity, the God at the End of Time. As in the previous books, Hamilton gives us his trademark multiple timelines, exotic extraterrestrials, fabulous technology and some mind-spinning science – as well as cataclysmic battle scenes and, despite the often bleak premise of a human race besieged by overwhelmingly superior forces, some characteristic optimism. He brings the multiple strands together in a stirring finale, but leaves a few narrative threads open to suggest the possibility of a welcome return to the Salvation universe.

Billed as a gender-swapped Alexander the Great in Space, Unconquerable Sun (Head of Zeus, £18.99) is Kate Elliott’s first space opera for adults following a series of bestselling YA novels. We are in the far future, and the diaspora of humankind is split into many warring polities spread across the galaxy. One of the most powerful is the Republic of Chaonia, ruled by the queen-marshal Eirene, a military mastermind with designs on the neighbouring Phene empire. Enter Princess Sun, Eirene’s daughter and heir, and a military commander in her own right. Fresh from a stunning victory against the Phene, the Princess is expecting promotion; instead she is posted to routine duties in the home star system, where she soon learns that there are political factions intent on removing her from power, even if that means ending her life. This entertaining shoot-’em-up, replete with epic starship battles, court intrigue and Machiavellian betrayals, is book one of the Sun Chronicles.

In The House of a Hundred Whispers (Head of Zeus, £14.99), the prolific Graham Masterton offers up a novel which at first seems no more than a compendium of horror tropes – a dilapidated Tudor mansion on the margins of Dartmoor, a mysterious killing, a family gathered for the reading of the will, a child who goes missing – but proceeds to subvert the cliches with some neat plot twists. Following the grisly death of the owner of Allhallows Hall, a former governor of Dartmoor prison, his grownup children convene to hear the will and settle their dead father’s affairs. When they learn that the house has been left to grandchild Timmy, tempers begin to simmer, brought to a boil when Timmy disappears in mysterious circumstances. Cue the entrance of ghosts, witches, and demons … Masterton handles his large cast of well-drawn characters with the finesse of a master storyteller, propelling the tension-filled narrative through a series of short, fast-paced chapters, and takes the novel in unexpected directions towards a suspenseful denouement.

Eric Brown’s latest novel is The Martian Menace (Titan).