The best recent science fiction and fantasy – review roundup

HIGH RES Ordinary Monsters by J M Miro jacket

Ordinary Monsters by JM Miro (Bloomsbury, £17.99)
A boy in Mississippi whose wounds heal miraculously after every beating; a girl in Tokyo who entertains her sister by summoning clouds of dust and making them dance; a baby in England who glows with a mysterious blue light: these are among the orphans whose talents have marked them out for “collection” by the doctor who heads a mysterious institution on the shore of a Scottish loch. For what purpose? This, and the origins of the terrifying figures who try to destroy the “Talents”, are questions gradually answered in this ambitious dark fantasy, the first in a projected series. A complex, often horrific tale told through multiple viewpoints and over different settings between 1874 and 1882, it is an enthralling read.

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In the Heart of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield

In the Heart of Hidden Things by Kit Whitfield (Jo Fletcher, £20)
Whitfield’s 2006 debut, Bareback, was an original take on werewolves; In Great Waters, an alternate history of Europe, featured mer-people. More than a decade later, her third novel draws on traditional folk tales to examine the fraught relationship between humans and the tricky, dangerous beings sometimes called fairies. It’s set in the imaginary village of Gyrford, where generations of Smiths have served as farriers, which in this case means not simply shoeing horses, but making iron charms for protection and advising on the best ways of dealing with the “good neighbours”. Gruff Jedediah Smith, his powerful, sensitive son Matthew, Matthew’s beloved wife, Janet, and their boy, John – who worries them all with his unorthodox behaviour – are engaging, believable characters who draw us into a world of walking bramble bushes and spectral, fire-breathing hounds. So many fantasies focus on isolated individuals who leave home to seek their destiny; this one stands out for its depiction of a family deeply connected to a community, helping those who need it the most, regardless of the danger to themselves.

The Sanctuary by Andrew Hunter Murray 9781529151572 The Sanctuary Jacket

The Sanctuary by Andrew Hunter Murray (Hutchinson, £14.99)
Ben’s fiancee, Cara, has been away for six months working for a wealthy philanthropist on his private island, and writes to say she has decided not to return: “This is the most important place in the world.” Unable to reach her by phone – “Pemberley’s island was almost completely cut off from the world” – he sets out on an arduous journey that nearly gets him killed. Eventually he is offered the chance to join the enthusiastic residents of Sanctuary Rock, who have turned it into a seeming paradise; not just a self-sufficient refuge for a few, it promises scientific advances that could head off global destruction. But Ben has a feeling some terrible secret lies beneath the idyll, and sneaks around looking for clues. The novel is set in a decaying world beset by floods and mass extinctions, where the wealthy live in protected villages designed by Pemberley, the man who now claims to have a plan to save the world. Ben behaves like an idiot, and the plot relies on a certain amount of contrived suspense, but this is a smoothly written, thought-provoking tale about ageing societies and wealth inequality, with an effective shocker of an ending.

The Splendid City by Karen Heuler

The Splendid City by Karen Heuler (Angry Robot, £9.99)
Texas has seceded from the US and named itself Liberty, ruled over by a president who gives the people what they want: daily parades, free nougat and plenty of surprises. Even being approached by a large talking cat named Stan doesn’t seem too surprising to most citizens; maybe he’s really a man with a strange skin disease? Eleanor, a young witch from the east, knows more about Stan’s background than she likes to admit. She’s been banished to Liberty and obliged to share a house with this annoying creature as penance for misusing a magic spell. She longs to be a good witch. Maybe, if she can prove her worth by helping the local coven find a missing member, she’ll be allowed to return home – with or without Stan. A sharp, lively, funny contemporary fantasy with the feel of an up-to-date, more adult version of L Frank Baum’s Oz books.

Scattered all over the Earth

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Granta, £12.99)
While studying abroad, Hiruko suddenly finds she cannot go home again, as Japan has vanished, presumably beneath the rising seas – although no one seems quite sure. Unable to extend her visa, she becomes a refugee, moving from one country to another. Catching sight of her on TV, Danish linguistics student Knut is charmed by Hiruko’s invented pan-Scandinavian dialect, Panska, and, because he’s so attracted to her, and in the hope of learning more about her ability to communicate across borders, he offers to help her search for other surviving native speakers of Japanese. They fly to Trieste where a festival of umami is to be held: but even sushi chefs who resemble anime heroes are not necessarily from Japan. Tawada writes lightly about serious matters in this memorable, magical tale.

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