The best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror

The prolific Stephen Graham Jones has written more than 20 books in as many years, and his latest, The Only Good Indians (Titan, £8.99), combines literary horror, a slasher-revenge plot and a Native American reservation backdrop to great effect. A decade before the main action of the novel, Blackfeet Indian Lewis Clarke and four friends, on a hunting expedition in Montana, trespass on land belonging to tribal elders and embark on a killing spree, slaughtering a pregnant elk in an act that will have terrible repercussions for the quintet. What follows years later is the manifestation of a spirit creature in the form of a woman with an elk’s head and her bloody revenge on the friends. Aside from delivering the staples of the horror genre, Jones is excellent at depicting the anxiety of Native Americans in contemporary society – and the finale is stunning.

Eve Smith’s The Waiting Rooms (Orenda, £8.99) posits a near future in which the overuse of antibiotics has resulted in many diseases being untreatable; the slightest infection can lead to death. Citizens over the age of 70 are no longer allowed new antibiotics and are shunted off to hospitals known as Waiting Rooms where death is inevitable. Kate Connelly is a nurse working with end-of-life patients in a world where stringent health precautions – personal protective equipment, face-masks and restricted social interaction – are the norm. Following the death of her adoptive mother, Kate begins the search for her biological mother, biologist Mary Sommers, and traces her to South Africa where, 27 years before the crisis, Sommers was searching for a cure for tuberculosis. Kate’s investigations lead to her uncovering a secret in her mother’s past which endangers not only herself but her family. Smith combines the excitement of a medical thriller à la Michael Crichton with sensitive characterisation and social insight in a timely debut novel all the more remarkable for being conceived and written before the current pandemic.

Another germane novel, though in a much lighter tone, is Jasper Fforde’s The Constant Rabbit (Hodder, £20). In August 1965, the Spontaneous Anthropomorphising Event took place: rabbits, foxes, weasels and other animals were transformed overnight, gaining size and intelligence. Now more than a million rabbits are living in human society; the United Kingdom Anti-Rabbit Party is in power and advocating the rehousing of rabbits in a vast Mega-Warren in Wales. Single father Peter Knox works for the Rabbit Compliance Taskforce, policing their comings and goings. His life changes for ever when a family of rabbits moves next door to him in the sleepy village of Much Hemlock, and Knox is forced to confront his apathy in the face of the speciesism fuelled by the politician Nigel Smethwick and the Two Legs Good Party. A political satire cloaked in Fforde’s trademark bizarre whimsy, the novel reads like a crazed cross between Watership Down and Nineteen EightyFour.

The Tasmanian Robbie Arnott writes passionate, lyrical fables about his native landscape imbued with an intuitive understanding of fauna and flora and humankind’s problematic, often violent relationship with nature. His second novel, The Rain Heron (Atlantic, £14.99), following his 2018 debut Flames, focuses on characters fighting for survival in a near-future country blighted by climate change and ruled by a ruthless military regime. A prologue recounts the fable of the Rain Heron, a creature said to bring rain and fecundity to the land, and the mythical bird threads its way through the novel as we follow Ren, a woman who fled from the city to eke out a subsistence living in the mountains, and Lieutenant Harker, the leader of a militia which comes in search of the eponymous heron. Written with economy and grace, The Rain Heron is a timeless and poignant meditation on our fragile relationship with the natural environment.

YouTuber Lindsay Ellis’s debut novel, Axiom’s End (Titan, £8.99), is a moving first contact thriller that opens in 2007 with Cora Sabino’s estranged father having blown the whistle on the US government’s secret: extraterrestrials exist and have been among us for decades. Shortly thereafter, following a “meteor event” in California – in reality the arrival of two alien vessels – introverted college drop-out Cora finds herself abducted by an alien named Ampersand, who came to Earth aboard one of the starships. Intending to bargain with government forces for her father’s safety, Cora acts as the alien’s interpreter. What follows is a well-observed exploration of Cora’s increasingly complex relationship with Ampersand as the alien attempts to negotiate with the US military for the release of fellow extraterrestrials held on Earth for more than 30 years. Touching on issues of prejudice and xenophobia along the way, Axiom’s End is the engaging first volume of a projected series.

Eric Brown’s latest novel is The Martian Menace (Titan).

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