Fantasy fiction: From the edge of heaven to the gates of hell
Reviews: ‘Edge of Heaven’, ‘The Fireman’, ‘The Paper Menagerie’, ‘The City of Mirrors’
Joe Hill: wanted to write an uplifting novel about the end of the world. Photograph: Will Ireland/SFX via Getty
The best genre writing breathes life into dusty cliches. Consider George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been adapted into an obscure HBO drama called Game of Thrones. (No, I haven’t heard of it either.)
At heart, the saga is a commentary on high fantasy’s shaggiest tropes: it works not because it rejects swords and sorcery conventions, but because it comes at them from new angles. Sure, there are the traditional princes in shining armour and beautiful damsels, only here they happen to be sociopaths and incestuous schemers. Thus is the over-familiar rendered dark and strange – and new.
A spirited revisionism similarly informs RB (Rachael) Kelly’s compelling first novel, Edge of Heaven (Liberties Press, £10.99). It is the early 22nd century and humanity is reeling from a cataclysmic double blow of global warming and a destructive war against artificially intelligent humanoids.
So far, so Blade Runner. Kelly, a film theory graduate from Belfast, knows her cyberpunk: in the “bi-level” city of Creo, rising like an infinite slag heap from western France, rain and neon intermingle while shadowy megacorporations plot from afar.
The book is elevated by Kelly’s gossamer prose, which evokes a megaconurbation that has never known a sunrise and where deranged synthetic humans roam. Kelly bolts on an agreeably convoluted plot featuring menacing moguls, mystery viruses and a plucky heroine who might plausibly be played by Jennifer Lawrence in a YA-friendly movie version.
Edge of Heaven is a slow-burner, punchy and riveting as required, but also mindful that science fiction’s first duty is to weave alternative realities in which readers can blissfully lose themselves.
A very different apocalypse is presented in Joe Hill’s The Fireman (Gollancz, £20), in which civilisation has been undone by a global pandemic of “Dragonscale”. Sufferers wake wreathed in gold filigree, from which pours smoke and, sooner or later, all-consuming fire. The whole planet is literally going up in flames.
Speaking to me recently, Hill said he wanted to write an uplifting novel about the end of the world. And so it goes: as Dragonscale reduces cities to burning husks and the countryside to a dangerous wilderness, survivor Harper stumbles upon a community that has found a way to live with the disease. Alas, complications arise as the outside world – including Harper’s manic husband – attempt to destroy what they do not understand.
Joe Hill, whose real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, is the son of horror icon Stephen King. Early in his career, King the younger kept a lid on his true identity but was “outed” after attendees at fan conventions noticed his physical resemble to his father.
The similarities do not end there; in scope and relentlessness, The Fireman recalls such King doorstoppers as The Stand and Firestarter. This is a big, barnstorming read, brimming with thrills even as it conveys a hopeful message. If society were to collapse tomorrow, it is by no means inevitable that we’d end up scooping one another’s brains out. We might well band together, protected by our better angels.
An entirely bleaker world view tinges The Paper Menagerie (Head of Zeus, £14.99) the first short-fiction collection by award-winning Chinese-American author Ken Liu. Some of the stories are head-spinningly fantastic and almost surreal in their inventiveness. In The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species, for instance, Liu imagines how language and the written word might differ among wildly un-human alien races.
The author can cut to the bone as well, most devastatingly in Simulacrum, which posits a near future in which people live on as undying holograms. It is a chilling rumination on our relationship with the past – the ghosts we carry in our heads, haunting us even on the brightest days.
Just as unnerving but far vaster in scope is The City of Mirrors (Orion, £6.99 paperback), the final part of Justin Cronin’s sprawling vampire trilogy, which began in 2010 with The Passage. Once again, humanity has been smeared from the map, this time by a plague transforming 99 per cent of the population into feral blood drinkers.
Cronin celebrates cliche as cheerfully as the hokiest self-published Kindle author. What sets him apart is his skill at lacquering the pulp with literary gloss. In The Passage, you really believed that reluctant FBI hero agent Brad Wolgast would risk all to rescue six-year-old “vampire whisperer” Amy. Still grieving for his own dead daughter, Brad’s willingness to sacrifice all for an innocent child gave the hokum a core of humanity. The same is true here as Amy, now the full-fledged nemesis of befanged big bad Zero, arrives in New York for a climactic face-off at Grand Central Station.
The City of Mirrors is both romp and meditation, a fat, scary novel that shows you what the end of the world might look like and makes you wonder if we aren’t closer to the cliff edge than we may like to believe.
Ed Power is a freelance journalist