Best sci-fi books round-up: Where imaginations run wild

David Barnett takes a look at the latest science fiction and fantasy titles

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The Independent Culture

Science fiction and fantasy is a broad church, and many who preach its tenets might not be wholly aware that they are doing so.

Take Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann, £16.99). Harkaway occupies that enviable territory where books of a speculative nature intersect with the mainstream, as evidenced by his previous novels The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker. Tigerman, his third, is his best yet, a funny, moving and thought-provoking tale with very localised apocalyptic overtones. British Army sergeant Lester Ferris is serving out his time on Mancreau, a distant former colony that is earmarked for destruction because of hi-tech pollutants which could endanger the rest of us. On this doomed island he meets a boy obsessed by comic books who needs a dad and a hero. Can Lester be either, or both? Whether it’s SF or not is arguable (I think it is); what is certain is it’s brilliant.

As is The Severed Streets by Paul Cornell (Tor, £12.99), the second novel featuring DI James Quill and his small Metropolitan Police team who specialise in supernatural threats. This hangs together even better than the first novel, Falling London, and fleshes out the characters to great effect as they hunt what might be the ghost of Jack the Ripper returned to present day London with very different victims in mind. Like The Sweeney on wolfsbane – superb.

Cornell’s work is urban fantasy, which is a path also trod by Charles Stross to great effect in his Laundry Files series, the latest of which, The Rhesus Chart (Orbit, £16.99) is a great jumping-on point for anyone who hasn’t read the previous four novels in the series. Bob Howard is the Laundry’s everyman, who’s worked his way up from lowly tech-support guy to supernatural superspy, thanks to a series of happy and not-so-happy accidents. Funny, smart and thrilling.

For an SF roundup there’s not much in the way of space and aliens so far… enter Terra’s World by Mitch Benn (Gollancz, £16.99). This is the follow-up to his refreshingly funny all-ages novel Terra, about a baby from Earth who grew up on a distant planet. There’ll never be another Douglas Adams, but Benn, combining his stand-up comedy talent with an obvious love of the genre, might be the closest you’ll ever get.

One of the best SF series I’ve read for years is Kameron Hurley’s remarkably original and imaginative series of books featuring the bounty hunter Nyx, the second of which, Infidel, is out now (Del Rey, £8.99). These tales set on a distant, conflict-torn world have much resonance for anyone watching events in the Middle East right now, yet are true and pure SF of the highest order.

From hard SF to The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen (Bantam, £12.99), an assured and confident debut that has already been optioned for a movie to star Harry Potter’s Emma Watson, featuring a strong female lead and a well-realised far-future post-apocalyptic world.

Also post-apocalyptic but far less fantastical is Sandra Newman’s stylish and accomplished The Country of Ice Cream Star (Chatto and Windus, £14.99). The titular character scratches out a living in the ruins of virus-ridden America where people don’t live beyond 20. But Ice Cream Star – speaking in a tangled pidgin English that inevitably recalls Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker – gives hope.

Two giants of SF and fantasy, Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett – have collaborated on their Long Earth series and The Long Mars (Doubleday, £18.99) is the third outing. This is imaginative, sense-of-wonder SF at its best, envisaging endless parallel universes through which humanity can suddenly “step”. Regular characters Sally, Joshua, and Lobsang face new adventures both on the myriad Earths and the new frontiers of multiple Marses – thrilling stuff from the masters.

More fun than a barrel of clockwork monkeys is Sky Pirates from Liesel Schwarz (Del Rey, £16.99), the latest Victorian extravaganza from a writer quite deservedly called the “High Priestess of Steampunk”. Schwarz knows her audience well and this latest adventure of plucky heroine Eleanor Chance is pitch-perfect, with buccaneers in dirigibles, a vengeful Council of Warlocks, and an Orpheus-like quest to reclaim lost love from the netherworld. Highly recommended.

As with Harkaway’s Tigerman, it’s up for debate whether My Real Children by Jo Walton (Corsair, £19.99, August 21) is SF. Like Tigerman, it’s a moot point because it’s utterly brilliant. Superbly observed and incredibly moving, this is the story of a split-second decision that literally splits the seconds. When Patricia Cowan gets a marriage proposal her world is divided into two timelines, one in which she says yes and one in which she says no. At the end of her life she can remember both timelines – each with their tragedies, joys and surprises (especially in world history) in what is an astonishing novel that will stay with you long after you close the covers.