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Bête by Adam Roberts (2014)


Bête is set in a world where green activists (or terrorists - depending where you stand on the story's events) develop a microchip that allows animals the power of speech. Although the initial wave of 'cunning' animals is small, the chips are easily replicated and passed on - before long, hundreds of thousands of 'Bêtes' on are on the prowl. As well as the expected results (our protagonist, a cattle farmer is suddenly out of a job as Britain goes vegan), there are great repercussions: what does it mean to be 'human'? Or a 'citizen'? To be represented, and, quite literally, heard?

Roberts is one of the modern masters of 'big idea' science fiction - a single concept, extrapolated and explored through all its various ramifications and permutations. And the talking animals of Bête are no exception - but like his literary predecessors, Roberts cleverly limits the story to something more manageable. Bête is, for example, a quintessentially British novel - along the lines of After London or even the works of John Wyndham, one gets the impression that the world extends only so far as the ocean.

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Where to begin with E. Nesbit?

"After Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit is the best of the English fabulists who wrote about children (neither wrote for children) and like Carroll she was able to create a world of magic and inverted logic that was entirely her own." - Gore Vidal

"There is no bond like having read and liked the same books." - E. Nesbit

The Enchanted Castle

Edith Nesbit, aka Edith Bland (married name), known to most of us as E. Nesbit, lived from 1858-1924, and she had a really interesting, convoluted life. Her husband had an affair with a friend of hers, and the friend/mistress came to live with them as a housekeeper. Edith and her husband had 3 children but adopted the housekeeper's 2 children (...that wound up being Edith's husband's real children).

Everything about her husband screams "OMG RED FLAG" to me. He lived with his mother and had a kid with another woman who thought they were engaged at the same time that a pregnant Edith was marrying him. The other woman? A friend of his mother's, so he continued to live at home with mom after marrying Edith because he didn't want mom to know that he had gotten married to someone else. He apparently went broke frequently also. One website I read called him "feckless" and while I think it fits, I don't think it goes far enough. I do think of words with "f" and "c" and "k" in them though, when I read about these things...

From most accounts, Edith put up with all of this because part of her innate personality: to be a caretaker and forgiving person. But oddly enough, this didn't always translate to her kids. She appeared to run hot and cold in waves, not just with her own children but with all kids. Strange in one of the western world's most beloved authors for children, no? I found it fascinating. She has this talent and does it, and she sacrifices a lot to adopt her husband's out-of-wedlock kids with her own friend, and she loves them… but then she also just couldn't even sometimes. I get it, Edith, I get it.

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Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort by Terry Pratchett

A cleverer person than me would probably open a piece like this with the argument that if death (Death? DEATH?) is the ultimate expression of reality we’ll all face one day, then perhaps fantastical literature is humanity’s way of expressing hope in the face of that truth: Storytelling as an act of creation beyond the reach of that grim but grinning full stop that awaits us at the end of our own stories.

I would likely also nod to the way that myth, folklore and fantasy have always ultimately been one of our finest tools for telling ourselves stories about what happens beyond the last page as it were - ‘what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’ as Shakespeare had it - but really I’m here to talk about Mort, not death, and while the latter may be somewhat unavoidable in the long run I am here to fully recommend introducing yourself to the former as soon as possible.

Mort is the fourth book in Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld sequence, but to my mind it’s actually one of the best titles to introduce new readers to his work.

His first two books, The Colour of Magic and its direct sequel The Light Fantastic are hilariously re-readable romps for SF&F fans where the territory is instantly recognisable even if Terry’s books are the notable exception on the fantasy bookshelf because they don’t bother to include a map.

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The Woven Path by Robin Jarvis (1995)

The Woven Path

When I try to explain why Robin Jarvis’ books are so compelling to people who haven’t read his work, I reflexively reach for the word un-patronising. It’s the best way I can explain it; the reason I was so drawn to Jarvis’ books when I was young. Yet as an adult, I found myself hesitating before giving The Woven Path to a distinctly worldly ten-year-old; not because I thought he might roll his eyes at the teddy bear on the cover, but because I was concerned the book might leave him an emotional wreck. 

And yet, this is precisely what I loved, and still love, about Jarvis. As a kid who was small for my age and looked younger than I was, I inevitably ended up being talked down to, and so was always on the look out for things that might be trying to patronise me. At first, I was doubtful of the Jarvis books I encountered, with their garish, cartoony covers. But then I opened The Alchymist’s Cat, book one in the Deptford Histories trilogy and…

How wrong I was.

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Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines (2001)

Mortal Engines
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve

There’s something pleasingly difficult to categorise about Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series. Is it YA? Science fiction? Post-apocalyptic? A resource-constrained dystopia? Should it be classified as steampunk?

You could make convincing arguments for and against each of these propositions, but regardless of what you decide, it is determinedly its own thing. A wildly inventive romp, traversing continents and leaving deep impressions on every page. And, if elements of the world Reeve builds conjure echoes of Brexit, or Trump’s wall building, or a myriad of urgent environmental concerns, then that’s because the scope he plays with is so undeniably epic.

Mortal Engines, the first in the quartet and published back in 2001, begins sometime beyond the 35th Century, a long time after the Sixty Minute War, with London chasing a small mining town across the dried out bed of the old North Sea.

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Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson (1979)

Which Witch?
Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson

Rats (literary ones) have been a big influence on me. From James Herbert’s horror stories at an age when I shouldn’t have been reading them to Alan Moore’s use of a rat king as a fearsome science-fiction weapon in The Ballad of Halo Jones, they’ve been present in many of my formative genre reading experiences.

It was no different when I came across fantasy, and discovered a book that contained one of the most memorable use of rats I’ve ever read. It still sticks in the mind with incredibly clarity now, and I first read it over thirty years ago. The sequence was so disturbing to me that I read it many times over because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It fascinated me to find something so grotesque in a book of light comic fantasy, and it taught me something new: behind every happy tale there lurks a darkness that fantasy can confront, particularly when it’s aimed at children.

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"4 British Fantasy Books I Love that No One Else Has Read" by Kirsty Logan

The Dribblesome Teapots
The Dribblesome Teapots by Norman Hunter

1. The Dribblesome Teapots, Norman Hunter

This has been one of my favourite books since I was about 7. It's a collection of surreal and funny fairytales set in the world of Inkrediblania, where a queen promises half her kingdom for a teapot that doesn't dribble, a man wears coloured ribbons on his arms to tell people the day of the week, and people are called the Earl of Lateleigh, His Decorative Flamboyance Prince Rococo of Okoko, and Ferdinand Fitzluvly (the court tailor, of course). As well as being a feat of imagination, Hunter's wordplay delights me every time I read it. It's been a huge influence on me as a writer: it encouraged me to use my imagination, make use of fairytale tropes, and play with language.

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At the Mountains of Madness by Ian Culbard (2010)

At The Mountains of Madness
At The Mountains of Madness

When Herge-style artwork meets one of Lovecraft's most popular works, the result is going to be notable - either as a resounding failure or a genius success. Fortunately for the reader, INJ Culbard's ballsy re-interpretation of At the Mountains of Madness is definitely the latter.

In his adaptation, Culbard successfully surmounts two critical challenges.

First, he's forced to condense one of Lovecraft's longest works into a graphic novel. "At the Mountains of Madness" is a big short story (actually, serialized novella). As well as the adventure component, the heart of "Mountains" is an entire history of Lovecraftian Earth. Imagine the task when it comes to converting this eons-spanning, immensely detailed info-dumping into a readable graphic novel. Keeping Herge in mind, it would be the equivalent of a Tintin adventure in which the intrepid reporter stumbles into a pyramid and finds the whole of Egyptian cosmology written on the walls... 

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Dumarest by E.C. Tubb (1967 - 2008)

Mayenne by EC Tubb

It took me over 10 years to find all 33 books in the Dumarest of Terra series, a far-ranging and rollicking set of science fiction novels by Edwin Charles (E.C.) Tubb, concerning Earl Dumarest, formerly of Terra, who stowed away as a child on a spaceship and now, as an adult, finds himself very far from home and wanting only to return.

Earl possess genetically superior luck and is inordinately fast with his reflexes when he chooses to be (mostly to the detriment of those whom he reluctantly kills who barely have time to gasp “too fast, he was just too fast….” before they die of a chest wound).

He is usually described as of medium height, with brown hair, wearing nondescript grey clothing and carries a knife in his boot (though you would not know this from the 1970-1980s UK book covers which mostly feature him in blue denim and having a blond mullet any member of supergroup Poison would have been proud to have been seen in).

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Phonogram (2006)

“I refuse to admit there is no meaning here. I will find meaning. I will force it.”
Lloyd, Phonogram: The Singles Club #6

For over a half century, the use of music and magic has stayed firmly rooted in the model Tolkien created: a bardic, Bombadillian tradition of sorcerous chanting. As a result, we've had wizards extemporising poetry and forcing rhymes. It is way of creating a functional metaphor for the otherwise inexpressible: a way of objectively measuring and comparing the immeasurable and incomparable. Music, like, presumably, magic, relies on wit, vocabulary, memorisation, and artistic prowess: therefore magic-as-music become a recurring metaphor. It was a way for the reader to understand the un-understandable. Music as an expression of an individual's magical skill was, and still is, the dominant paradigm - it can still be found happily chanting away in many a high fantasy series.

In the 1990s, the technology and production of music changed (well, it did in the 1980s, but it took a while for fantasy fiction to catch up). Music was no longer, if you’ll pardon the pun, a one-man band – the bard, furiously racking his memory for demon-repelling doggerel. Music itself began to be made in layers: songs and studios, productions and distortion, sampling and remixing, a task that could involve dozens or hundreds of people… or even one vocally-challenged youth with an Amiga, a kit-bashed mixing board and an army of samples. Stage presence was no longer required – nor, for that matter, a singing voice. Pop stars may swan around like kings and queens, but, as Faithless pointed out, “God is a DJ.”

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