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Superheroes, deadly dolls, space pilots, and underworlds

David Barnett samples the latest in science fiction, fantasy and horror

Lavie Tidhar won 2012’s World Fantasy Award for his highly original novel Osama, which posited an alternative-reality in which Bin Laden was the anti-hero of a series of thriller novels. While perhaps not as politically loaded as Osama, Tidhar’s The Violent Century (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99) is no less powerful. He imagines a world where superheroes are real. But while the Americans go for the brash costumes and public displays of power, Tidhar’s British heroes – primarily Oblivion and Fog – operate in the shadows, and bear witness to the major events of the 20th century in what is quite simply a stunning masterpiece.

Also dealing with superhumans is V E Schwab’s Vicious, coming up for UK readers in January from Titan books (£7.99). Friends Eli and Victor experiment with near-death experiences as a way of unlocking latent superpowers. It’s a supremely plotted and incredibly well-written piece.

In House of Small Shadows (Macmillan, £14.99) Adam Nevill explores a primal modern phobia – the fear of dolls and puppets – and spirals off into an exploration of a long-forgotten English folk tradition that is eminently believable at the same time as it is horrifying. A wonderfully creepy and disturbing novel.

Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice (Orbit, £7.99) signals the arrival of a hard science fiction author who just might fill the gap left by Iain M Banks. Ancillary Justice is a highly original novel with the protagonist a fractured artificial intelligence of a vast spaceship boiled down to a single reanimated corpse, out for revenge in an intelligent slow-burner. Highly recommended.

Another new hard SF novel with a well-imagined female lead is Gary Gibson’s Marauder (Tor, £18.99), which features pilot Megan Jacinth who has to not only locate an ancient entity and save colonised worlds from an impending alien invasion, but must find the friend she left for dead in order to do so. Solid space-faring action from an established name in the genre.

Mark Charan Newton shot to the top of the epic fantasy tree with his Legends of the Red Sun series, and now he’s done it again with Drakenfeld (Tor, £17.99). It is essentially a locked-room murder mystery, with the titular Drakenfeld an investigator for the Sun Chamber, which tries to maintain justice in the disparate nation-states of the Royal Vispasian Union. Drakenfeld is a flawed yet appealing hero and Newton has wrought a fast-paced fantasy thriller which should appeal to readers of C J Sansom.

Like The Violent Century, Guy Adams’s The Clown Service (Del Ray, £12.99) features a very British secret service. Toby Greene is a less-than successful spy and after one gaffe too many is re-assigned to Section 37 – dubbed “The Clown Service” in the circus of British espionage – tasked with tackling supernatural and paranormal threats. The Clown Service is fun and rips along like the finest episode of the old Avengers TV series.

The New Girl (Atlantic, £7.99) is the third and final outing for the Downside series from writing partnership Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg, writing as S L Grey. Their first book The Mall was one of the most original horror debuts of the past few years, and their second, The Ward, managed to recreate and take further their part-satirical and mostly horrifying vision of an underground mirror-world to ours. Incredibly, they’ve managed to keep the idea fresh and new with the final chapter, which not only riffs on the creepy and unsettling atmosphere inherent in schools, but gives us a satisfying look at the other world and how its inhabitants cope with life in our society. A must read.

Rebecca Alexander’s The Secrets of Life and Death (Ebury, £12.99) began life as an entry in a Mslexia writing competition, and has now become the first in a series with a strong female cast and a story that rattles along at a fair pace. It’s a fine addition to the urban fantasy genre and marks Alexander as an author to watch.

And so to The Man With The Compound Eyes (Harvill Secker, £16.99), a Taiwanese novel by Wu Ming-Yi that is, frankly, astonishing. A vortex of trash thrown away by our society has accumulated in the ocean and comes crashing back to land, bringing with it a young boy from an untouched island who lands in the life of bereaved professor Alice Shih. A wonderful novel which deserves a very wide audience.