The best recent science fiction and fantasy – review roundup

The Evidence by Christopher Priest; The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas; Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims; Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher; These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

The dolls are enchanted in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Thief on the Winged Horse.
The dolls are enchanted in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Thief on the Winged Horse. Photograph: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
The dolls are enchanted in Kate Mascarenhas’s The Thief on the Winged Horse. Photograph: Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
Fri 13 Nov 2020 07.00 EST

In The Evidence (Gollancz, £20), Christopher Priest makes a welcome return to the Dream Archipelago, a string of islands where nothing is as it first appears. Thriller writer Todd Fremde is invited to lecture at the university in Dearth, a subpolar island that undergoes destabilising changes in space and time known as “mutability”. While on the island he is approached by a semi-retired police commissioner; she recounts the details of a murder that occurred 15 years earlier. Fremde investigates the killing on his return home, only to discover that aspects of her story do not tally with the known facts. He soon finds himself drawn into a series of baffling events that threaten to bring the killer to his doorstep. With characteristic literary playfulness, Priest presents both a compelling mystery – Fremde’s attempts to work out the objective truth of the cold case – and a treatise on the unreliability of subjective narrative. The Evidence is an unsettling, Kafkaesque tour de force.

The Evidence by Christopher Priest

Kate Mascarenhas’s debut was the well-received SF novel The Psychology of Time Travel, featuring a time-hopping cabal and strong female characters. She switches genre to fantasy with her follow-up, The Thief on the Winged Horse (Head of Zeus, £18.99), bringing magical realism to a contemporary Oxford setting in an atmospheric examination of gender inequality. In 1820 a workshop was founded by the four Kendrick sisters, making enchanted dolls which, when touched, radiated specific emotions. Over the years the balance of power has shifted, and now only men are allowed to conjure this magic. Persephone Kendrick, niece of the paterfamilias Conrad, dreams of being allowed to work with the dolls but instead must stay in the family shop processing orders. The novel follows the frustrated Persephone, wonderfully disgruntled yet resourceful, and her romance with a newcomer, the enigmatic Larkin, as she attempts to reclaim a valuable stolen doll and subvert the male dominance of the business.

Thirteen Storeys by Jonathan Sims

Jonathan Sims is known as creator and presenter of The Magnus Archives, a podcast relating the exploits of a fictional paranormal institute. As might be expected from someone who has been terrifying listeners for years, his first novel, Thirteen Storeys (Gollancz, 16.99), combines a creeping sense of unease with all-out gore. Tobias Fell was the ruthless billionaire owner of Banyan Court, a high-rise development that combines luxurious apartments for the super-rich alongside more affordable housing. During a party at his penthouse suite, Fell was horribly butchered – a mystery that has been puzzling conspiracy theorists for years, as none of the 13 guests, all residents or workers at the block, will divulge what happened that night. The portmanteau novel rewinds to tell the stories of the guests and the varied supernatural events they experienced in Banyan Court, leading up to their party invitations from Fell. The book works both as a collection of inventive horror stories and as a cohesive novel, building to a nerve-jangling finale that reveals the shocking events at the party.

Witch Bottle by Tom Fletcher;

Tom Fletcher’s Witch Bottle (Jo Fletcher, £16.99) follows the fortunes of Dan, a failed writer who abandons his wife and child for the wilds of Cumbria, where he finds work as a milkman. Three narrative strands build a comprehensive picture of the protagonist: his disturbed childhood, his failed marriage and his current life in what is far from a rural idyll. Dan is plagued by visions of a menacing hooded figure – and he soon discovers that he’s not alone, as other villagers are experiencing disturbing events. Adding to the mounting dread is a local business called Fallen Stock, which collects the carcasses of farm animals and whose employees might be involved in the occult. When Dan meets Kathryn, a white witch who makes “witch bottles” – milk bottles filled with magical fluid to avert evil influences and deter malign presences – Dan agrees to deliver them to locals, a decision that results in him receiving a series of threatening messages. Fletcher excels at infusing the mundane – details of Dan’s job are meticulously observed – with a slow-burning sense of unease.

These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong

New Zealander Chloe Gong’s ambitious debut, These Violent Delights (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99), is an action-packed fantasy thriller set in a vividly realised 1920s Shanghai. Not only are there violent machinations between competing mafia gangs but a monster is terrorising citizens from its lair in the Huangpu River, and a contagious disease is ravaging the city. The narrative follows the fortunes of tough, determined Juliette Cai, newly returned to China from her studies in the US and heir to the leadership of the Scarlet Gang, and Roma Montagov, scion of the White Flowers. In a roller-coaster retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Gong charts the lovers’ backstories – they were childhood sweethearts whose romance ended bitterly – and tells how they set aside their differences to join forces against the enemies of the city. These Violent Delights combines strong characterisation, skilfully interwoven political insight and an atmospheric portrayal of a Shanghai in the throes of change.

Eric Brown’s latest novel is Murder by Numbers (Severn House).