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FICTION Sci-fi and fantasy round-up: June 24, 2020

Reviews of Hope Island by Tim Major, Engines Beneath Us by Malcolm Devlin, TTA Press, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison and The City of a Thousand Faces by Walker Dryden

IN HOPE ISLAND by Tim Major (Titan, £8.99) TV news producer Nina is trying to process the shock of abandonment by her partner.

She takes her teenage daughter to stay with the girl’s American grandparents on Hope Island in the hope that maybe there the two will be able to reconnect. But the island is a strange place, full of oddly behaved children, shouting adults and mysterious deaths.

Nina’s maternal instincts prompt her to flee but her professional instincts tell her there’s a story on the island.

The atmosphere and denouement are delightfully reminiscent of 1970s Doctor Who and Major has a special skill of weaving his characters’ inner turmoils into the perils they face in the plot.

Those who grow up in The Crescent in Engines Beneath Us by Malcolm Devlin (TTA Press, £6.99), take it for granted that their self-contained little world constantly throbs and hums to the working of The Works.

They know from childhood that at 16 they will be apprenticed to The Works and that without it the whole city would come to a halt.

They’re aware that people outside The Crescent view them with nervous distaste. But theirs is a safe, supportive community, where healthy children play games of imagination in the street. Sometimes, though, a newcomer can’t get used to the thrum, or the apartness. And that can disrupt everything.

Demonstrating how understated prose can itself thrum as if concealing hidden workings, this authentically eerie novella gets its tone just right.

I’ll admit I’ve no idea what The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again (Gollancz, £20), M John Harrison’s first novel in seven years, is about.

Does anyone ever know what Harrison is writing about? His prose is always sparklingly lucid but there is a reticence to his storytelling which seems to imply that meaning is not his to reveal.

The story features two people in contemporary London who are trying to have a romantic relationship, hindered by habits, formed in childhood, of emotional self-isolation. Meanwhile, in the waterside towns of Britain, people seem to be becoming more fishlike.

No doubt there are allegories involved at some level, if not actual alligators, but rather than try to winkle them out I simply enjoyed floating through something uncanny and exquisite.
 
Those who’ve heard the BBC radio series Tumanbay will need little urging to jump into The City of a Thousand Faces by Walker Dryden (Orion, £16.99), a novel based on the first series of the quasi-historical epic.

The city of Tumanbay is the capital of a great empire. Drawing the ambitious and the desperate from around the world, it’s a place where it’s possible to arrive as a slave and die as a ruler.

The book, like the radio drama, is partly a political conspiracy thriller — elements within the sultan’s court contend for power —  partly a fantasy story and partly a saga.

Compellingly written and free from the pseudo-mediaeval filler that so often bloats fantasy writing, its urgent storytelling still allows for subtle characterisation and comprehensive world-building.

Tumanbay is distinctive and irresistible.

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