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  may 2018 - science fiction and fantasy

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Image above copyright Paul Norman "Caterpillar Cocoon" taken 23rd April 2018


Sioned Davies: The Mabinogion

Published by OUP World's Classics 26th April 2018

Then they took the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden that anyone had ever seen. Celtic mythology, Arthurian romance, and an intriguing interpretation of British history ― these are just some of the themes embraced by the anonymous authors of the eleven tales that make up the Welsh medieval masterpiece known as the Mabinogion. They tell of Gwydion the shape-shifter, who can create a woman out of flowers; of Math the magician whose feet must lie in the lap of a virgin; of hanging a pregnant mouse and hunting a magical boar. Dragons, witches, and giants live alongside kings and heroes, and quests of honour, revenge, and love are set against the backdrop of a country struggling to retain its independence. Sioned Davies' lively translation recreates the storytelling world of medieval Wales and re-invests the tales with the power of performance.


The Mabinogion is a legend of which I've heard, particularly with reference to Arthurian legend, but I've not had the opportunity to read it until now, with this OUP World's Classics hardback edition (two other titles in this brilliant series on thi page, see below and column right for Frankenstein). The Mabinogion has everything that Mallory's Morte D'Arthur has in spades, and is a worthy companion to the legend of King Arthur. A handsome edition of a true classic of romantic fiction.



Arthur Machen: The Great God Pan and Other Stories

Published by OUP World's Classics 25th January 2018

Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalised-late-Victorian readers. Machen's 'weird fiction' has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro-and it remains no less unsettling today. 

This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen's weird vision. The edition's introduction and notes contextualise the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.


You may by now have already read what I have to say about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Gothic Tales (main column, above); and the same comments apply to Arthur Machen's chilling and very scary tales. These were written at a time when the vast majority of people still believed in the supernatural, ghosts and spirits, and this is reflected in the stories. Alost as scary as Stephen King, and a really handsome edition, too!





Conn Iggulden: The Falcon of Sparta

Published by Michael Joseph 3rd May 2018

In the Ancient World, one army was feared above all others. 401 BC. The Persian king Artaxerxes rules an empire stretching from the Aegean to northern India. As many as fifty million people are his subjects. His rule is absolute. Though the sons of Sparta are eager to play the game of thrones . . . Yet battles can be won - or lost - with a single blow. Princes fall. And when the dust of civil war settles, the Spartans are left stranded in the heart of an enemy's empire, without support, without food and without water. Far from home, surrounded by foes, it falls to the young soldier Xenophon to lead the survivors against Artaxerxes' legendary Persian warriors. Based on one of history's most epic stories of adventure The Falcon of Sparta masterfully depicts the ferocity, heroism, and savage bloodshed that was the Ancient World.


Having just watched the last episode of Troy on BBC1 in fast forward mode just so that we could catch sight of the enormous horse and how they treated it, I was in the mood for s proper, superbly-written book about the ancient world, its superheroes and its amazing battles, and this is in brilliant supply in Conn Iggulden's latest book about Artaxerxes and the warriors of Sparta. Conn's writing style is inimitable and I cannot think of any author better equipped to deal with this eye-opening and hugely satisfying tale. Utterly copelling and quite superb.


Charles Perrault: The Complete Fairy Tales

Published by Oxford World's Classics 22nd March 2018

Charles Perrault's versions gave classic status to the humble fairy tale, and it is in his telling that the stories of Little Red Riding-Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and the rest have been passed down from the seventeenth century to the present day. Perrault's tales were enjoyed in the salons of Louis XIV as much as they were loved in the nursery, and it is their wit, humour, and lively detail that capture the imagination of adult and child alike. They transmute into vivid fantasies the hidden fears and conflicts by which children are affected: fears of abandonment, or worse, conflicts with siblings and parents, and the trials of growing up. 

In addition to the familiar stories, this edition also includes the three verse tales ― the troubling account of patient Griselda, the comic Three Silly Wishes, and the notorious Donkey-Skin. This translation by Christopher Betts captures the tone and flavour of Perrault's world, and the delightful spirit of the originals.


The latest volume in OUP's magnificent collection of timeless classics, this time featuring the extraordinary tales that inspired the classic fairy tales with which many of us are familiar. I was particularly taken by Perrault's story about Red Riding Hood and how it differs slightly from the versions we were introduced to at primary school back in the 1950s. Mesmerising.

Mark Roland Langdale: The Time Travellers Club

Published by Matador 28th March 2018

An entertaining book full of humour, science and history Children can learn in a fun way about history with more time traveller's than you can throw a Flux-capacitor at! The story starts in a gentlemen's club in London in 2061 and follows the main character, Benjamin Digby Esq. He relives his days as a `quantum' scientist at the Crick institute in London in 2021 by telling his circle of friends his extraordinary tale about travelling in time. He travels back to the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851 Victorian England where he meets Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Benjamin's aim is to pick up inventors and scientists for his Time Travellers' Club: Einstein, Da Vinci, Brunel. He gets more than he bargained for when he gets chased through time and space and encounters Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli. There are more twists and turns in this than time itself - expect the unexpected! The Time Travellers Club is Mark's fourth Matador children's book, and will appeal to science fiction lovers and fans of his former books. Praise for Mark's former book, The (Phantasmagorical) Astrarium Compendium: "The story is obviously written by an author who loves writing and who enjoys bringing the imaginary world of historical fantasy to life." - Historical Novel Society




Robin Hobb: Assassin's Fate

Published by Harper Voyager 22nd March 2018

Prince FitzChivalry Farseer’s daughter Bee was violently abducted from Withywoods by Servants of the Four in their search for the Unexpected Son, foretold to wield great power. With Fitz in pursuit, the Servants fled through a Skill-pillar, leaving no trace. It seems certain that they and their young hostage have perished in the Skill-river. Clerres, where White Prophets were trained by the Servants to set the world on a better path, has been corrupted by greed. Fitz is determined to reach the city and take vengeance on the Four, not only for the loss of Bee but also for their torture of the Fool. Accompanied by FitzVigilant, son of the assassin Chade, Chade’s protégé Spark and the stableboy Perseverance, Bee's only friend, their journey will take them from the Elderling city of Kelsingra, down the perilous Rain Wild River, and on to the Pirate Isles. Their mission for revenge will become a voyage of discovery, as well as of reunions, transformations and heartrending shocks. Startling answers to old mysteries are revealed. What became of the liveships Paragon and Vivacia and their crews? What is the origin of the Others and their eerie beach? How are liveships and dragons connected? But Fitz and his followers are not the only ones with a deadly grudge against the Four. An ancient wrong will bring them unlikely and dangerous allies in their quest. And if the corrupt society of Clerres is to be brought down, Fitz and the Fool will have to make a series of profound and fateful sacrifices. ASSASSIN’S FATE is a magnificent tour de force and with it Robin Hobb demonstrates yet again that she is the reigning queen of epic fantasy.


My favourite female fantasy writer turns in a brilliant new tale featuring Fitz Farseer. The fantasy is muted, assumed, and the story could really be of a genuine historical nature, but you know that at any moment Robin can turn on the fantasy, and it's this element of reality, of real people, that makes it what it is - superb fantasy from an inspired and inspiring writer!


Nnedi Okorafor: Who Fears Death

Published by Harper Voyager 22nd March 2018

Now optioned as a TV series for HBO, with executive producer George R.R. Martin! In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the colour of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different – special – she names her Onyesonwu, which means ‘Who fears death?’ in an ancient language. It doesn't take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu – a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her. Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.


Nnedi's post-apocalyptic Africa seems to me to be a metaphor for what's actually happening on the continent right  now before our very eyes.

S A Chakraborty: The City of Brass

Published by Harper Voyager 8th March 2018

Among the bustling markets of eighteenth century Cairo, the city’s outcasts eke out a living swindling rich Ottoman nobles and foreign invaders alike. But alongside this new world the old stories linger. Tales of djinn and spirits. Of cities hidden among the swirling sands of the desert, full of enchantment, desire and riches. Where magic pours down every street, hanging in the air like dust. Many wish their lives could be filled with such wonder, but not Nahri. She knows the trades she uses to get by are just tricks and sleights of hand: there’s nothing magical about them. She only wishes to one day leave Cairo, but as the saying goes… Be careful what you wish for.


This is almost a modern variation of the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights - a magical mixture of fact and fiction - absolutely superb!



Anna Smith Spark: The Court of Broken Knives

Published by Harper Voyager 5th February 2018

Perfect for fans of Mark Lawrence and R Scott Bakker, The Court of Broken Knives is the explosive debut by one of grimdark fantasy’s most exciting new voices. They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust. In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it. Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built. The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.


Grimdark fantasy is not a term I've heard used before in relation to the genre, and in terms of classifying this novel, it doesn't actually mean anything to me. This is straightforward fantasy with a nod to what's happening today in the middle east, but it's clearly fantasy and a welcome addition to the genre.



Mary Shelley: Frankenstein - the 1818 Text

Published by OUP World's Classics 25th January 2018

By the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window-shutters, I beheld the wretch-the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened...'

Frankenstein is the most celebrated horror story ever written. It tells the dreadful tale of Victor Frankenstein, a visionary young student of natural philosophy, who discovers the secret of life. In the grip of his obsession he constructs a being from dead body parts, and animates this creature. The results, for Victor and for his family, are catastrophic. 

Written when Mary Shelley was just eighteen, Frankenstein was inspired by the ghost stories and vogue for Gothic literature that fascinated the Romantic writers of her time. She transformed these supernatural elements an epic parable that warned against the threats to humanity posed by accelerating technological progress. 

Published for the 200th anniversary, this edition, based on the original 1818 text, explains in detail the turbulent intellectual context in which Shelley was writing, and also investigates how her novel has since become a byword for controversial practices in science and medicine, from manipulating ecosystems to vivisection and genetic modification. As an iconic study of power, creativity, and, ultimately, what it is to be human, Frankenstein continues to shape our thinking in profound ways to this day.


I have never read (until now) Frankenstein, and my knowledge of the story was confined to the various Hammer Films versions with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. This was a groundbreaking piece of fiction when first published, and remains so now, especially for newer generations of readers, who have the added advantage of this handsome addition to the new set of Oxford World's Classics.


Game of Thrones Tarot Set

Published by Chronicle Books 20th March 2018

Explore Game of Thrones with this beautifully rendered and wholly original tarot card deck with 78 cards and a hardcover guidebook. This deluxe box melds the tradition of the tarot with the deep archetypes of Game of Thrones. Each card, from the Major Arcana to the Cups, Coins, Spears, and Swords of the Minor Arcana, offers a rich and meaningful experience. Game of Thrones fans will pore over a treasure trove of much-loved characters, scenes, and stories depicted in a style both surprising and true to the world of Westeros. An accompanying hardcover booklet explains the symbolism of each card and how to use them in a tarot reading.


I have no doubt this set of Tarot cards will be a massive hit with Game of Thrones fans... a handsome box, a handsome gift!


The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its twentieth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.