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Books Fantasy and science fiction round-up

Reviews of the latest from Leigh Bardugo, Nina Allan, Mike Shackle and Simon Morden

WE’VE all heard of the ultra-conservative, secret societies based at Yale University such as Skull and Bones. But what we didn’t know is that each of the eight “houses” specialises in a different type of sorcery, like using the entrails of homeless people to foretell movements on the stock market.

That at least is the premise of Leigh Bardugo’s fabulous fantasy novel Ninth House (Gollancz, £16.99).

In her version, the ninth of the societies polices a code of conduct intended to prevent the young aristos from getting completely out of control.

Alex is the newest recruit to this ninth house but she doesn't exactly fit in — she has no blue blood, and she’s not a genius. She does however have one special, awful talent.

A blend of horror, crime thriller and hidden-world fantasy, dramatised as a tale of plucky poor girl vs entitled rich bastards, this is one of the year’s most refreshing novels.

In London between the wars, a young country lad named Owen is apprenticed to a watchmaker in The Silver Wind by Nina Allan (Titan, £7.99).

But just as Owen begins to get glimpses of the potential for time travel contained within a horological affectation known as a tourbillon, it gradually dawns on the reader that the novel isn’t set in quite the London of our own history.

Allan uses the idea of alternative timelines, and their differences, to show what’s left in common — the irreducible, skeletal frame of a relationship stripped to its essence.

Her storytelling is so captivating and effortlessly accessible and her settings so vivid that it can easily bear the weight of a good deal of intriguing philosophising.

We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle (Gollancz, £16.99) is the first in a fantasy series taking place in a world where magic died out generations ago.

But when Jia is invaded and conquered in just a few blood-soaked hours, it’s clear that one nation has managed to revive the old arts. The invaders act in the name of their one true god, dedicated to subjugating and converting those who worship false deities.

Jia’s elite military caste was immediately overcome, so defiance is left to a rough motley of voluntarist heroes and reluctant rebels. This is a good fun resistance story, featuring thoroughly horrible, and believable, occupiers.

An alien probe lands on Earth to explore, study and periodically report back to its orbiting mother-ship in Bright Morning Star by Simon Morden (NewCon Press, £12.99).

Unfortunately, it has arrived in the midst of a war, thus imperilling its mission and in order to survive, and so continue to collect data, it can’t avoid becoming involved in diplomacy.

That’s an involvement which must inevitably have immense implications, not only for the belligerent nations but for all humanity.

An immediately engaging story about first contact, mingling adventure and humour, becomes a constantly thought-provoking exploration of the ideology and psychology of war and peace, as well as the limits of free will in artificial intelligence.

And, of course, Morden has chosen a great title!

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