This is The Bookshelf, a list of recommendations related to each issue’s theme. It’s not an exhaustive list, or a top 10 list in any way. It’s just a collection of books that we love that feature this issue's theme of Land, Sea and Sky in some interesting ways.
The City’s Son by Tom Pollock
I have never trusted Canary Wharf. A symbol of Britain’s new trade, thudded down upon London’s old docks and wharves, blaring that the physical age is over. So I was extremely tickled when I realised that Tom Pollock’s YA series is named after the cheeky throne that the old goddess of London, Mater Viae, has carved into the side of the pyramid atop One Canada Square, etched there to defy her age-old gentrifying, capitalist enemy, Reach. This is the battleground of this book’s secret London, a now-familiar trope in urban fantasy. Supporters of the absent Mater Viae are urged to gather by her son Filius Viae and his new friend Beth, from our normal London, to fight the cruel steel creatures of Reach. Beth’s best friend Pen has been captured by Reach - and it’s good to see female friendship being a driving force for motivation, although the barbaric torture that happens to Pen is shocking. I’m pleased to see that in book two of the series, The Glass Republic, Pen comes into her own and gains some agency. Pollock has great fun creating the various characters that inhabit his secret London – I think my favourites were the electric women who live in streetlamps – and they are woven into the story deftly to create a defiant and tragic tale that struck close to home. I’m not for stagnation in London by any means, but obliterating its heritage in the name of progress as seems to be currently happening makes this a timely story, and its fight is one I’d take up myself, although it would be nice if I had some magic statues and streetlamps on my side. Lucy
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin
Yeine has travelled from matriarchal Darre to the capital of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Sky, to see the ruler of the empire – her grandfather. Sky is an awe-inspiring creation – a palace separated from the city, floating in the air. Everyone living in the palace is a member of the Arameri family, including all the servants, for the family are the only ones who can control their slaves – four gods bested by another, Itempas, who is mandatorily worshipped by all people of the empire. Yeine struggles to fit in – she is mixed-race and looked down upon, and she is also trying to find out who murdered her mother, suspecting family politics. She has to quickly learn how to play the game whilst traversing the intricate corridors, secret passages, and different class areas of Sky. Fighting all the time to make her own decisions, she is nonetheless beset by influence from other parties – her cousins who are fighting to be heir, the people of Darre whose ruler she now is, the lesser indentured members of her own family, and the enslaved gods of the palace, who have been plotting for thousands of years for their freedom. Yeine is a resilient, intelligent and realistic young woman who manages her own sources of power to withstand these pressures as best she can. It was nominated for the Hugo Award in 2011 but I’ve only just read it and I’m certainly going to catch up with the other two books in the Inheritance Trilogy to see the rest of Yeine’s story. Lucy
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
A classic by the queen of unsettling literature, Shirley Jackson. Hill House is a huge, old country estate in a remote location rumoured to be rife with paranormal activity. Dr John Montague investigates such activity and recruits suitable people to go and spend a summer there with him to observe what happens. He invites two women he suspects to be susceptible to the paranormal – Eleanor, who in her youth experienced some odd telekinetic phenomenons, and Theodora, a possible psychic. Joining them is the heir to the estate, Luke. The housekeeper leaves promptly at 6pm everyday, refusing to stay after dark. And it is after dark when the terror levels are amplified, with threatening notes appearing on the walls, rattling doors and frosty breezes. It is the contrast between these scenes and the pleasant ones during the day that makes them so frightening – the dialogue between the four guests (and the grumpy housekeeper Mrs Dudley) is so refreshing, cute and funny that sometimes you think you could be reading a light society novel. I love snarky yet sympathetic Theodora, who really is only there because of a spat with her girlfriend. And I felt so sorry for shy Eleanor, off on her first trip alone after a lifetime of caring for her mother, whose anxiety and paranoia are amplified by Hill House’s claustrophobic environment. Shocking, scary and brilliant, I think The Haunting of Hill House is the best haunted house story ever. Lucy
On a Red Station Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
I am fascinated by the idea of futuristic space stations – trading hubs and mini-communities spinning in space. Despite being self-contained environments, with recycled air, water and food, they see people come and go, passing through from various corners of the universe. Yet they have constants too – the people who live and work on the stations, who raise families there, just as if they were normal cities. The Prosper Station of Aliette de Bodard’s novella is sentient, run by a software program born of a human woman. And not only that, but it remembers all human descendants who are related to it. And they, in turn, are connected to their ancestors through mem-implants. These are status symbols – to receive them you must pass proficiency tests. And once you have them, you receive unceasing advice from those family members who came before you, so even if you are in an isolated corner of space, you are still connected. Once I realised that this story contains a SF version of ancestor worship, a religion that my own Chinese family ascribe to, I got very excited. This is what I didn’t realise that I had been missing out on – good SF that contains aspects of my own culture. And not only that, but complex, interesting and brave female characters like the two in the book – Linh and Quyen, both tiny players in the wider war going on in the Dai Viet Empire elsewhere in the universe, but who have to resolve political and personal problems all the same. The story begins when Linh arrives at Prosper as a refugee. She has a higher status than cousin Quyen though, even though Quyen effectively runs the station, and they have to navigate through their own pride, family problems, ambitions and personal baggage in order to work out the best courses of action. It’s a slim book but it packed so much in that I felt astonished. Definitely seek it out. Lucy
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Although over 20 years old, Red Mars is currently extremely relevant, as the first volunteers for Mars One’s manned mission to Mars are presently being trained and selected. I wonder if they have a book club and if this has been a pick yet. Would they debate over whose camp they’d fall into? Would they become new capitalists, mining Mars for precious minerals? Mars equivalents of hippy earth mothers? All these types are seen amongst the 100 colonists who travel to the red planet in Kim Stanley Robinson’s first book of his Mars trilogy. The detail in the book is extraordinary. I think my favourite passages are the ones soon after the settlers arrive, when Nadia Chernyshevski manages the construction of their habitat. It was just very pleasant to settle in and observe this squat woman’s skill, diligence, and ceaseless hard work. Of course, this period of honest industry doesn’t last and soon the colonists are debating what to do next. Robinson’s book, although it is science fiction, is often praised for how realistic it seems to be, and even though on an alien planet, the settlers are still human, with human flaws and susceptibilities, including influence from Earth-based transnationals. At least though, there are periods of wonder, often provided by Ann Claybourne, the settler who is most conservationist; she wants to keep Mars as it is. I wouldn’t have sided with her (breathing is fun), but I am grateful to her for she provides appreciation and description of Mars’ astonishing landscape. Her eyes are the ones who look out on Mars with gratitude and sorrow as she knows only they, the first 100 colonists, will ever see Mars the way it looked before humans took over. Lucy
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
One of the best books I read last year. Complex, diverse, tragic and funny, it also contains epic, rich world building. Bulikov is a formerly powerful and magical city, whose inhabitants worshipped living deities and who abused their power by invading nearby Saypur. One of their warriors, the Kaj, fought back and killed the gods who had made Bulikov’s land so fearsome, and immediately, the city crumbled. Saypur now controls Bulikov and it seems to be nothing more than a colonial outpost. But, does religious magic still lurk in the twisting alleyways and staircases of the Old Quarter? We see the city through the eyes of Shara, a spy in a bureaucrat’s mask, sent by Saypur to investigate the murder of a Saypurian historian interested in Bulikov’s history and magical relics. Helping her is her secretary Sigurd, a giant man of the world’s Dreyling race, who became my favourite character along with Saypur’s governor Turyin Mulaghesh, a world-weary female soldier-turned-diplomat. With Shara’s investigation driving the plot, the book examines what it means to have been colonised and get revenge on those who invaded you, as well as religion, dispassionate gods, personal desire weighed against responsibility to one’s own country and people, and government control. That’s a lot of themes. But they are all investigated really well, as the book is so well-written with charming dialogue and interactions between all the characters. Although not initially planned, a sequel is on the way so we can spend more time in this world, and thankfully, with Sigurd. Sometimes I remember a certain scene involving a giant, disgusting sea monster, and have a little daydream... Lucy
Between Two Thorns, Book 1 in The Split Worlds By Emma Newman
Between Two Thorns is part murder mystery, part political thriller, part feminist statement, set across three different worlds. The mundane (the real world), Exilium (where the Fae live) and the place between, the Nether. The Fae have been banished from our world to live in Exilium because they are pretty downright dangerous to have around. Living in the Nether are their servants, humans stuck a couple of centuries in the past, complete with fencing, duels, and extreme levels of sexism (perhaps not that far in the past then). In the Nether you might not age, but a lifetime spent in a loveless marriage is more than Cathy, our heroine, can bear, so she escapes to the Mundane in order to go to university and flee patriarchal political posturing. Unfortunately her freedom doesn’t last long, what with a magical patron like Lord Poppy and a father hell-bent on marrying her off. Add to this mix Arbiter Max, a man whose soul is trapped in a rather wonderful animated gargoyle, whose job it is to police the Fae and the Nether, and Sam, a normal bloke who happens upon a murder late one night, and gets dragged into a world he would very much rather be left out of. Emma writes dark intrigue with a light touch, creating endearing characters that will hook you into their lives, and the terrible mess they must find a way out of. Laurel
A Face Like Glass By Frances Hardinge
A Face Like Glass takes place in a vast underground world called Caverna, where the inhabitants live in a strict hierarchy balanced around master craftsmen who produce wonders and delicacies to amuse the Grand Steward. Neverfell, an assistant to the master cheese maker, has led a lonely protected life in her adopted home, never leaving the safety of the stone tunnels and booby traps that protect the prized cheeses. Babies are born in Caverna without the ability to show emotion in the form of facial expressions, and must learn how to show feelings such as sadness, anger, or joy, from Facesmiths, who charge an extortionate amount for the service. Neverfell, however, is different, and has been forced to wear a mask in order to hide her unusual talents. But when she accidentally finds herself in the outside world of Caverna, she quickly falls at the mercy of the cruel ruling families and the notice of the Grand Steward. Pulled into the cut-throat politics of Caverna, Neverfell must figure out how to stay alive, keep those she cares about safe, and somewhere along the line, plan a revolution.
Mars Evacuees By Sophia McDougal
Our world has been overrun by icecap-melting invisible aliens who would prefer it to be very, very cold and preferably human-free. Terraforming Mars seems like humankind’s best hope for survival, and things are looking so bad on Earth that the next generation of army recruits are sent there before it’s become fully inhabitable. Alice Dare (often mistakenly called Alasdair) has a famous alien-fighting mother, and is one of the chosen ‘lucky’ few to be sent for training in the tenuous safety to be found on Mars. Surviving the other recruits and worrying about her parents soon become minor worries, as the battle for Earth is brought to the red planet. Forming an alliance with Josephine, Karl and Noel, the group must deal with Lord of the Flies levels of bullying (it gets pretty dark here), space locusts that will eat anything (and I mean anything) with their revolving razor sharp teeth, and becoming possibly the first humans ever to come into contact with an alien face to face. Like in all of the best children’s books, here we see again a narrative of the grown-ups well and truly messing things up, so that it’s down to the kids to sort things out.
But it feels anything but tired as Alice and her friends make game-changing discoveries, and ultimately, show the adults how things should be done. This is a really powerful theme, looking at how when we are kids things seem a lot simpler in a moralistic way, and how the complications of adulthood muddy our decision-making and cause all sorts of avoidable, pointless conflict. Perhaps if we could remember what it was like to be twelve, life would be a lot better for everyone. Mars Evacuees is an incredibly entertaining, exciting read, with genuinely laugh-out-loud humour, and a leading bunch of diverse, carefully thought out characters with real personalities and idiosyncrasies. In short, Sophia McDougal is an excellent writer, and I urge all you adults to read Mars Evacuees, before reluctantly handing it over to your kids. Laurel
The world building of Caverna is weird and inspired, like all of Frances Hardinge’s work, and has a personality all of its own, overshadowing the inhabitants that live within. It is a place devoid of natural light, built on the toil of slave-like drudges, where children are anything but protected by their elders. In fact, again as is a thread through a lot of Hardinge’s fiction, the adults have a real menace to them, highlighting the somewhat scary levels of control adults have over children, and how that is only ok as long as the adults have the child’s best interests at heart. Laurel