1995 SFX Reviews

Terry Pratchett: Soul Music

(Transworld paperback, 378pp, £4.99)

The legendary Discworld suffers from frequent invasions and crazes. When it's not unspeakable abominations (closely resembling Jeremy Beadle) from the Dungeon Dimensions, it's the hellspawn of our own Earth: police procedurals, Hollywood, fundamentalists, guns, or – worst of all – shopping malls. This time the invading madness is sex, dwarfs and rock'n'roll. Well, without the sex.

Soul Music continues the 'Death saga' from Mort and Reaper Man, with skeletal Death again going off duty and worrying about the Meaning Of It All. The universe needs a stand-in for the truant, probably because of quantum, and Death's schoolgirl granddaughter Susan discovers that although she's related only by adoption, Discworld heredity works in mysterious ways and bone is thicker than water. The scythe is hers: she is the Grim Teenager.

Unfortunately she finds herself fancying the doomed guitarist of the subtly named Band With Rocks In, which has set Discworld twitching and jumping to a new sound that hot-wires the spinal cord: Music With Rocks In! Even the aged wizards of Unseen University are strangely impelled to don blue suede shoes and leather robes ... the Bursar, who's a bit out of date, has a flared robe. The Band itself consists of horn-playing Glod the dwarf, Cliff the troll on rocks ('Can't see anyone lasting long in this business with a name like Cliff') and guitarist Imp y Celyn – whose name appears to mean 'Bud of the Holly'.

Death himself may be taking a holiday with the Klatchian Foreign Legion and the Discworld underclass (including Foul Ole Ron, the beggar whose appalling Smell leads its own independent life), but the Band is in deadly peril from crazed audiences, its own rapacious manager, and the Musicians' Guild ... whose hard men know some nasty tricks with a piccolo. Hilarious digressions, one-liners and rock jokes abound: 'We're on a mission from Glod'. Bit parts include a computer powered by bugs, a raven who doesn't do the N-word, and the Tooth Fairy – whose business principles are explained at last.

But as usual with Pratchett, there's a steely underlying toughness about matters of life and Death. Susan's verbal showdown with Grandfather Death is both funny and touching. Meanwhile the dancing, electric spirit of the music loves Imp/Buddy, and wants to give him its best gift: to live fast, die young, be famous forever....

Events build almost logically to a climax requiring Death, black-leather-robed and with a rose between his teeth, to race madly on something very like a motorbike towards a final drastic clash of music and silence. Maybe not the best of the Discworld novels, but definitely a good one.

John Whitbourn: To Build Jerusalem

(VGSF paperback, 311pp, £5.99)

This fantasy revisits the alternative England of John Whitbourn's award-winning A Dangerous Energy, where magic works, science is retarded, and everyone grovels to the Vatican. It's a dark world, with witty touches – like Winston Churchill's eulogy to the martyred hero whose successful action shaped this history, Saint Guy Fawkes.

Something is rotten, though, in the alternative 1995. A major new demon is loose, and besides alarming sexual tastes she has a nasty sense of humour. King Charles IV himself is diabolically abducted. So is an entire castle. The workers – the Levellers – are revolting.

Enter papal investigator Adam, a one-man Inquisition who demonstrates painful martial arts on anyone slow to answer questions. After a spectacularly disastrous conjuration in Westminster and gory mayhem in Guildford, Adam locates the she-demon's lethal private universe and leads in the troops....

There are worse things than the demon, whose excesses are limited by an unnamed but guessable Power. England's real rottenness is the dispossession of farm workers, echoing the Thatcherite feeding frenzy of our own world. The fate of the rescued King is an ultra-black joke; Adam's fate is best not thought about.

This is a worthy if slightly less strong successor to A Dangerous Energy: clever, uncompromising and uncosy.

Graham Joyce: Requiem

(Creed paperback, 305pp, £4.99)

Did it happen or didn't it? This psychological tale of hauntings puts its hero through exhausting emotional switchbacks where nothing is what it first seems.

In one plot strand, Tom Webster may be suffering visitations from his wife Katie, whose accidental death shouldn't make him so mysteriously guilty. But his one tiny betrayal was the last straw for a struggling relationship, and....

Another haunting is far older. Tom flees on holiday to Jerusalem, home of an old flame. Now, besides Katie reaching from the deeps, he has impossible visions of aged Mary Magdalene. Both hint at an ancient tale which chimes with unpublished Dead Sea scrolls: an alternative crucifixion story, and how St Paul hijacked the Gospel to write its female participants out of history.

A lovingly described Jerusalem holds the storylines together with its rich mix of danger, mysticism and exotic sleaze. Not a safe place for Tom to go over the edge, see long-tailed djinni in the streets, and decide that temples built on lies must be destroyed. Reality has grown unreliable: the most shocking of the sex scenes (of which there are plenty) never apparently happened at all.

Good, vivid characters and lashings of menace make this a highly disturbing read.

Greg Egan: Permutation City

(Millennium paperback, 310pp, £4.99)

Greg Egan is dead clever; too clever, perhaps, for lazy readers. He begins with a now-routine sf idea, the software simulation of human personalities, and takes it on a wild journey beyond reality.

We imagine computerized personality 'Copies' as thinking with supercomputer speed: Egan's insight is that they'll run in slow motion because of the vast calculations involved. Rich Copies can buy more processing power and live faster. If your Copy can afford only five seconds' computer time a day, it doesn't notice the gaps – but the real world blurs rapidly past. Even if the processor clock ticks only once a century the Copy still feels perfectly normal.

Which is Egan's springboard for the brain-bursting idea of a purely mathematical home for Copies, needing no expensive computer hardware! This is Permutation City, a virtual utopia that runs well for 7000 years until it meets the strange philosophical threat of being proved logically unnecessary....

Not everyone likes this ambitious book. It's not that the characters are flat, but that their interesting quirks are dwarfed by the gigantic concepts dominating the narrative. Personally I loved it – especially the reference to one of my own sf stories.

Gwyneth Jones: North Wind

(VGSF paperback, 281pp, £5.99)

In this sequel to the award-winning White Queen, a century has passed on Earth since first contact with the visiting alien 'Aleutians'. These are genuinely fascinating creations – human-like enough to seem understandable, but with strange depths and ways of thought.

For example, Aleutians are casual killers because death isn't final for them. They share memories by constantly exchanging 'wanderers', mobile clumps of body cells acting like human pheromones but often much bigger ... so one diplomatic problem is the human gut-feeling that these visitors are infested with crawling parasites.

North Wind is mainly a love story of communication and non-communication between human hero Sid and the alien Bella whom he sees as female – though other Aleutians consider Bella a 'him'. The setting is Earth after the Gender Wars (where many men fought on the female side and vice-versa) and life is a maze of shifting allegiances and factions. So one implication is that the gulf of incomprehension between Sid and Bella isn't much wider than between men and women, or any two humans whatever.

Jones constructs splendidly complex, thoughtful, lived-in and smelly sf worlds ... not always easy reading, but well worth your time.

Clive Barker: Everville

(HarperCollins paperback, 640pp, £5.99)

Clive Barker is a fine, fluent writer with the power to create memorable – and often memorably nasty – scenes and images. So there are plenty of interesting ingredients in this whopping fantasy-horror epic ... but perhaps too many, and not all of them cooked enough. Although Barker's creative imagination can still boggle us, something has been lost since the days of those razor-edged short stories in the Books of Blood, or the magical vistas of Weaveworld.

Everville's story begins in 1848 with a grim prelude to the founding of Everville, Oregon. After some blood, violence, and chilling reminders of a certain brand of religious intolerance, we skip abruptly to the activities of an almost unworkably large cast in the present day. For a long while the relevance of the 19th-century prologue is puzzling, but slowly it emerges that four of its characters are still around, only one of them dead....

Despite its vast length this isn't a stand-alone novel but 'The Second Book of the Art': the first was The Great and Secret Show, and it looks suspiciously as though there'll be a third (if only to reveal what the shadowy Art actually is). Several characters barely seem part of book two and make mere guest appearances – like the unsociable 'Death-Boy' who moves in a cloud of dust full of screams and faces. He lurks menacingly offstage for hundreds of pages, walks on a couple of times to play his brief and murderous bit-part, and then vanishes most unsatisfactorily into the shadows.

There are similar problems with the unspeakable, unbeatable arch-villain Kissoon and the continent-sized apocalyptic monster called the Iad Uroboros. This latter name is surely an error of judgment: it's Iad with a capital I, but one keeps reading the I as a lower-case L, especially when the 'Uroboros' is omitted. Hence the story is clouded by double-takes – who is this young fellow? – and visions of a stray character from the Legion of Super-Heroes called Uroboros Lad. But I digress.

Anyway, the Iad gets a terrific build-up as the ultimate world-drowning abomination from the dark side of the metacosmic dream-sea Quiddity. Quiddity itself, that luminous place one visits in dreams and otherwise only three times in life (birth, first love and the moment of death), is a fine and original creation. There is a real sense of wonder here ... and of loss, too, as the sea's magical archipelagoes are wrecked by the dark wave of the oncoming Iad. And then we have this colossal anticlimax when the Iad (or part of it; the plotting is a trifle strained at this point) breaks through the portal to Earth and Everville, shrinks to a far less terrifying scale, achieves absolutely nothing either creative or destructive, and – in company with Kissoon – soon slips quietly out of sight, its eyes on a distant sequel.

Incidental treats include shootings, dismemberment, soul-draining, plentiful mutilation and mayhem, lynching, several crucifixions, incinerations, impalement, excrement-flavoured snakes crawling forcibly down throats, and much general slaughter – usually of innocent bystanders. These include large numbers of not-quite-human exiles from Quiddity to Earth, once again making Barker's favourite point that the vileness in the human soul is much more to be feared than any seeming malformation of the body. As one character muses: 'Demons were simple. They believed in prayer and the potency of holy water. Thus they fled from both. But men; what did men believe?' What, indeed.

The writing is certainly good enough to keep unsqueamish readers turning the pages, but Everville would have benefited from some sharp trimming of surplus fat – like a few of the less relevant storylines and characters, and the way its energy fizzles in a succession of false, abortive or not-quite-climactic climaxes. Another example of the naggingly loose weave of this story: the psychic investigator Harry D'Amour spends an inordinate amount of time fretting over the peculiar significance of the nonsense mantra a certain demon repeated again and again to him during a nasty encounter not actually featured in this book. Suddenly, when Everville is nearly over, the demon pops into view for the first time and there's a brief showdown, apparently a final one, in which the significance of the fatal words is still not explained....

There's a certain whiff of soap-opera plotting here (resembling the book's described smell of bad magic: 'stale incense and week-old sushi'), with characters left over from The Great and Secret Show being dragged on stage for no better reason than to be killed off ... with others appearing more for the sake of continuity than because they're genuine participants in this novel ... and with great wads of development and denouement being carefully and rather too obviously being held over for a presumed Book Three.

To be fair, Everville's 640 pages do manage to bring a few of its spaghetti-like plot lines to a satisfyingly rounded close. The strand that starts in 1848 works out effectively, with some nice ironies in the backfill of revelations. Another tale which runs from start to finish is a thoroughly unpuritanical love story – Barker is too smart to fall for the Hollywood ethic that virtue must be rewarded and vice punished, and the fate of the naughtily adulterous lovers in Everville is nicely unconventional in several senses. A further character is strangely transfigured by gaining the Art, but what exactly this means we don't find out. It is also good to see the godlike and sadistic observers called the Jai-Wai finally get jolted out of their enjoyment of the unfolding bloody tale and sucked into the plot as vulnerable players. Other successful scenes could be listed.

But still the book has this albatross of unfulfilled story hanging around its neck, draining away its impetus into a black hole of inconsequentiality, and for all Barker's skill and flashes of vision it ultimately fails to satisfy. No doubt it will still sell very well indeed.

Ian Watson: The Coming of Vertumnus

(VGSF paperback, 288pp, £5.99)

Here are eleven highly varied stories from the ingenious Mr Watson. Some are sf, some unclassifiable, some shade off into horror. But the horror comes from strange angles, as in the tales of a talking city, a glassy vertiginous prison and an accursed extractor fan – or of the New Testament which Jewish concentration-camp victims are forced to write in their own blood, and which connects disturbingly to the ancient legend of the Golem.

The sf includes one almost ordinary story of Aliens Who Test Humanity, an extremely fishy genetic romp, a deranged account of a civilization living in the spiral groove of one record in a juke-box universe, two strongly disorienting tales where reality, dream and hallucination play musical chairs, and the mini-novel 'Nanoware Time'. Here devious aliens offer us nanotechnological mental control over 'demons' that can hack the software of the universe, without explaining what the demons are or where they come from ... a nasty surprise which leads to some of Watson's exuberant hurling of spanners into metaphysics.

Of the puns and frivolous wordplay it is wiser not to speak. Something enjoyable for everyone, and something to annoy everyone too.

Sarah Ash: Moths to a Flame

(Millennium hardback, 296pp, £15.99)

This debut novel by a new British author is packaged as "High Fantasy", and wears the exotic clothing of fantasy with panache. There's a brutal, decadent slave-empire which worships undying fire, with an estranged king and queen (here, the Arkhan and Arkhys) and much political in-fighting between the royals, the judiciary (the Zhudiciar ... oh dear) and a traditionally intolerant priesthood persecuting one lone proto-scientist. Into this poisoned, erotic labyrinth are thrown two new slaves, brother and sister, from a far-off mystic island. What comes with them will change everything.

But the new factor – hallucinogen, aphrodisiac, and plague – works itself out in intriguingly science-fictional terms. It's a biological rather than a magical curse (though its cycle leads back to metamorphosis and magic). Mostly it makes excellent sense, and I don't propose to reveal details.

Moths is simultaneously fast-moving and told in effectively lush, fey language. Sometimes this lapses into repetition or goes over the top, as when one chap's hair is "a silkfall of moonstained ashsilver", but overall it works well. Many writers would have padded Moths into a trilogy: Ash has better control of her material and is definitely an author to watch.

Stephen Baxter: The Time Ships

(HarperCollins hb, £15.99, 455pp, ISBN 0 00 224609 0

H.G.Wells's 1895 The Time Machine is one of the great early classics of sf. Can a centenary sequel possibly succeed? Stephen Baxter is a brave man, and after deadly tussles with the Wells estate (which initially didn't approve and had to be bought off) he takes the same Time Traveller on journeys which make the first book's thirty-million-year jaunt resemble a short stroll to the post office.

The Time Machine ended with the unnamed Traveller setting off again, never to return. Baxter reckons he would hasten back to the Wellsian future of effete Eloi and cannibal Morlocks, to rescue his lost Eloi friend Weena. The first of many shocks is that the future isn't what it used to be; neither are the Morlocks, and there's a good sf explanation for the disappearance of the Sun. Timelines were changed by our man's first journey and by the publication of The Time Machine itself....

Travelling back to the 19th century to set things right naturally puts time further out of joint. Soon we're in a grim dystopia, a fortified London where World War I is still being wearily fought in 1938. Next stop: the Palaeocene! Artful allusions to Wells abound: "The Plattner Story", "The Land Ironclads", "The Chronic Argonauts" (that early Time Machine draft whose Traveller was called Nebo-gipfel, a name here transferred to an intellectual Morlock), and more. Indeed this is a Wellsian universe, where atomic weapons work not as we expect but as Wells imagined them in his grim 1914 novel The World Set Free.

Multiple pasts and futures stack up wildly: to understand them, the Traveller needs a crash course in the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics. In another 1891 where humanity has had a fifty-million-year evolutionary start and transfigured itself into seething heaps of nanotechnology, Baxter unveils his biggest idea. The Time Ships are to make the ultimate journey – with the Traveller as passenger – back to the very Beginning, where adroit use of 'Nonlinearity Engines' will ... well, read the book.

This juggling with eternity and infinity might be too much without the firm earth-anchor of Wells's Traveller, who maps the strangest futures in terms of Greater London (location of all the Earth scenes) – engagingly describing weird structures in a transformed world as being in Fulham or Hammersmith. Early in The Time Ships the italics and exclamation marks are slightly overdone, but overall Baxter writes a fair and affectionate Wells pastiche.

And he adds neat sf frissons of his own. It's effective when the Traveller realizes on one futureward journey that the steady, unwobbling blur of the Sun across the sky means that in this timeline Earth's tilt has been adjusted to eliminate seasons.... Or when, hurtling from a distant future where all stars have vanished into enclosing Dyson spheres, he travels far enough backward through endless night that suddenly: 'All over the sky, the stars were coming out.' Take that, Arthur C.Clarke!

The Time Ships is, in fact, a ripping yarn. Recommended.

Iain M.Banks: Feersum Endjinn

(Orbit pb, £5.99, 279pp)

This is high-concept sf, and no mistake. There is a castle so vast that entire cities are built in its rooms and chandeliers, while for excellent but almost forgotten reasons the central tower rises beyond the atmosphere (a problem for the poor sod who ends up having to climb it). Its interstices hold a raging, chaotic electronic afterlife called the crypt, infested with giant raptors and a flayed, gibbering horror. Characters die many times. Far above, an encroaching dust-cloud threatens to swallow the Sun and bring Earth to a frozen, lightless end. Gosh!

To complicate matters, one narrative strand is related by the youthful crypt-communicator Bascule the Teller, hu rites lik nijel moalswurth onli wurse (on akownt uv disleksia) & u need 2 reed ded slo 4 it 2 mayk eni sens @ orl.... After a while this becomes quite fun, and the plot marches on.

One favourite trick of Iain Banks and his sf alter-ego Iain M.Banks is to conceal a booby-trap at the heart of the story, so that when you've unpeeled the final layer of his narrative onion something goes sproing in your face and rearranges everything that has gone before ... one shattering example being Use of Weapons. Here the surprise is a double-cross: the final paragraphs in which Bascule names the feersum endjinn and reveals what it does are – after all the book's tantalizing build-up – feersumly reminiscent of a shaggy-dog story. Fooled again! Banks is a brilliant conjuror and he makes you like it.

Terry Brooks: Witches' Brew

(Legend hb, £15.99, 304pp, ISBN 0 09 960311 X)

It's ages since I read and puked at Terry Brooks's execrable Tolkien rip-off The Sword of Shannara. Nearly two decades later he still sells, and it's time to investigate again....

This is the fifth in his 'Magic Kingdom of Landover' (Landrover?) series, and it leans frequently and annoyingly on irrelevant past events. For example, there are several references to a 'dark fairy' called the Gorse who did something pretty vile in a previous book, but who has nothing to do with the current plot.

What is the plot? Ben Holiday rules this Magic Kingdom which he bought in book 1; an invader pops up and announces that he will jolly well invade unless Ben agrees to fight, in turn, seven invincible magical champions. Being a fantasy hero (and since his daughter has been kidnapped), Ben says Yes ... little knowing that behind this unconvincing threat there's a still less convincing rationale involving an all-powerful witch who hates him and could kill him at will, yet feels the need to toy with him at novel length.

Perhaps earlier books were better, but here, despite some good energetic fight scenes, Landover seems a desperately thin creation – populated with cardboard characters and fraught with the gloom-inducing possibility that some of this is meant to be funny. A castle called Sterling Silver! The inept wizard Questor Thews! A soppy dragon! A hilarious sub-race called the G'Home Gnomes! If only there had been some jokes.

Not one that will bear re-reading.

Nancy A.Collins: Paint It Black

(NEL pb, £4.99, 253pp, ISBN 0 450 61010 1)

The young vampire with limitless cool and street-cred (fangs in the disco, mirrorshades after dark) is already a well-worn horror cliché. But any cliché can come to alarming life when an author pours enough energy into it, and Nancy Collins does just that.

Our anti-heroine Sonja is a reluctant bloodsucker, often drinking only bottled or animal blood. Crazed with hatred for the vampire-lord who initiated her, she spends her days hunting and killing others of her kind. But she's also crazed in a deeper sense, haunted and taunted by the blood-hungry 'Other' in her own mind – who breaks dismayingly loose when Sonja attempts an ordinary relationship with a boy-friend...

This is a sequel, but the background is slipped in deftly. It's not just us and vampires: there's a whole 'Real World' of night life out there, with werewolves, ogres, demons, succubi and 'seraphim' all passing as human (one witty snapshot has a Hasidic jeweller carrying valuables around New York with, as bodyguard, his personal Golem). Naturally, too, there are vampire S/M sex clubs where adoring human groupies or 'renfields' – see Dracula – are fitted with taps allowing blood to be drawn off into elegant crystal glasses.

Sonja stalks through minefields of eroticism and violence to a final, spectacular confrontation. Meanwhile a mysterious Real World subplot is working itself out, hinting at an eventual end to the bloody cycle of vampiric predation ... but not just yet. All powerful stuff, not for the squeamish or prudish.

Robert J.Sawyer: The Terminal Experiment

(NEL pb, £5.99, 328pp, ISBN 0 340 63233 2)

Robert Sawyer, a relative newcomer to sf novels, has an interesting technique of taking familiar plot devices and smashing them together in dense, exciting showers of sparks.

Here there's the old notion that super-sensitive EEG scanners might detect an electromagnetic pattern that defines humanity and leaves the body at death: the "soulwave". Hence much social and theological upheaval (pro- and anti-abortion movements are convulsed by the measurability of just when a foetus acquires a soul). Next: the possible implication of an afterlife inspires Peter Hobson, discoverer of the soulwave, to have three computer simulations of himself set up, to see whether he could survive as an immortal or a creature of pure intellect.

Meanwhile a mass of hotly emotional material about Peter's marriage seems at first to be novelistic padding but proves highly relevant. Peter can't bring himself to hurt the rotter who seduced his wife, but at least one of his disembodied alter-egos can. And you can get almost anything through Internet, including hired assassins....

So it's a detective thriller (which AI version of Peter dunnit? I guessed right) plus a moving human drama of coming to terms with the one flaw in a happy marriage, with further surprises lurking up Sawyer's sleeve. Admittedly there's some dodgy plotting: the incidental nanotechnology seems too advanced for this particular 2011 AD, and it's a boggling coincidence that Peter's AI simulations should be the very first to break loose on the Net. But the book grips hard and doesn't let you go.

[All the same, I was surprised that such a lightweight sf thriller should go on to win the Nebula award in 1996. Strange are the ways of SFWA voters. – DRL]

Brian Stableford: Serpent's Blood

(Legend hb, £15.99, 485pp, ISBN 0 09 944331 7)

At first glance Serpent's Blood looks like another fantasy epic. After all, it's billed as the First Book of Genesys (to be followed by Salamander's Fire and Chimera's Cradle), and the action consists largely of ill-assorted groups travelling through realms of mystery and danger like the Forest of Absolute Night and Dragomite Hills, seeking the enigmatic Navel of the World....

But Brian Stableford is science fiction's number one expert in designing exotic biosystems, and this is a carefully imagined alien world where the omnipresent Enemy is far more insidious than any Dark Lord. It is, simply, decay. The biosphere is riddled with multiple varieties of rot: wood, stone, metal and even glass are all short-lived. Cities are forever under construction, forever falling apart.

The human colonists aren't quite human; we learn that they've been gene-engineered to live in this ecosystem, with teeth that regrow when destroyed by blight. Books and records don't last, either: human knowledge itself is decaying as it's passed from memory to memory.

Which sounds glum; but the story is exciting, colourful and witty, if a little leisurely in pace. We meet two fascinating alien races, with a third to come – not to mention grisly 'chimeras' which mingle human and unearthly flesh. A new sort of change is in the air, a long-planned genetic time-bomb which may finally end this constant losing battle against decay.

After book one the lead characters still face a long, long journey ahead – and I'm looking forward to it.

Christopher Fowler: Spanky

(Warner pb, £4.99, 338pp, ISBN 0 7515 0699 0)

Spanky is a charming, charismatic daemon (or just plain demon?) who steps into the life of the non-hero Martyn Ross. Martyn, frankly, is a wimp – a whining no-hoper in a dead-end job, fascinated by Spanky's offer of a magical self-improvement course to tackle his abject lack of money, prospects, girlfriends and dress sense.

Half the book duly shows us Martyn being boosted to suavity and confidence. Much of this is witty, as in the scene where he finally gets laid by a sexy model – with Spanky invisibly present and offering helpful but unappreciated advice. Already, though, there are hints of darkness: to improve Martyn's career a rival for promotion must be 'accidentally' crippled, and his own family also needs shock therapy....

We know what must follow. Spanky's assistance seems freely offered in a spirit of merry bonhomie – no tedious formalities like signatures in blood – but eventually the bill is presented. Faustus and traditional demonologists gambled their souls, which nowadays seems a remote and hazy proposition. The price asked of Martyn is far more immediate and horrifying.

Refusal leads to a gory catalogue of coercion and punishment for trying to bilk a daemon, related with horrid zest. The pages turn faster as Fowler escalates the one-sided conflict to its only logical conclusion. Compulsive, edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Many will be too embarrassed to buy Spanky or read it in public, thanks to a weird leather-queen jacket picture whose relation to the story is tenuous beyond belief.

Jenny Jones: The Blue Manor

(Gollancz hb, £16.99, 352pp, ISBN 0 575 05818 8)

This strange tale of a house and its haunting could legitimately be called a multi-generation family saga. Though The Blue Manor is set in modern Essex, the family past refuses to stay buried and insists on telling its own story ... first through a character's attempts at "fiction", and later in disturbing resonances where one bad event strikes a chord with others across the years. History repeats itself, especially the bits we'd prefer not to.

Penetrating these convoluted thickets of narrative is an uneasy, confusing experience. The Blue Manor is troubled by multiple presences, living and dead: ghosts, guardian elementals and their dark counterparts, an unusual curse or binding that pivots on the magic number 3, and enigmatic links to the goddess Arianrhod and the constellation Corona Borealis. At the heart of the maze is a monstrous family tree, warped by generations of rape, magical seduction, murder and incest. This is not a cosy haunting.

The psychic vortex surrounding the manor is strong enough to suck in a complete outsider (not just anyone, but a man with a personal tragedy of appropriate Grand Guignol proportions). Those echoes of history need someone to fill the recurring role of gardener....

It seems almost impossible that this multi-stranded nightmare can be wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion, but Jenny Jones does so with considerable assurance and a high body count. Some tantalizing loose ends remind us that not everything on the dark side of life can be neatly explained. It's all very effectively harrowing.

Mark Jones: Black Lightning

(Gollancz hb, £9.99, 299pp, ISBN 0 575 05899 4)

The most interesting points about this technothriller are its ultra-competitive hardback price and the clever publicity ploy of having the nationalist Russian politician Zhirinovsky denounce it as 'trashy ... full of scandal and lies.'

Yes, it's about big bad post-Communist Russia, itching to regroup under nationalist leadership and conquer the world. Mark Jones has worked there and has fierce views: his narrative is clotted with ostentatious research and political axe-grinding. There's also much confused action and violence, with an unkillable CIA hero surviving everything from GBH to professional execution and burial in a frozen grave. Rasputin would be proud of him.

The Macguffin is Russia's secret sf weapon Molniya, designed to simulate a nuclear explosion's electromagnetic-pulse effects and shut down power and communications anywhere in Europe or America. What's more, Molniya is a massively fortified undersea installation, impervious to attack ... and the new Russian leader, strangely resembling Zhirinovsky, plans to trigger it as a neat fireworks display to celebrate his inauguration. Things certainly look black for the West.

Things are likewise tough for the author, who has written himself into a corner and can only contrive a happy ending by introducing – in the very last chapter – an artificial intelligence built into Molniya itself. A sympathetic, mind-reading superweapon with ethics! We haven't seen plot twists like this since early Star Trek. Ultimately Molniya does its stuff but in reverse gear, and my uncertain trust in Jones's political analysis was shaken further by his truly loony ideas of thermodynamics. Disappointing.

Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle & Steven Barnes: The Dragons of Heorot

(Gollancz hb, £16.99, 447pp, ISBN 0 575 05659 2)

This is the long-dreaded sequel to The Legacy of Heorot, in which a team of (literally) brain-damaged colonists on an alien planet had numerous bloodstained adventures with native predators – the incredibly violent, supercharged 'grendels'.

Now it's a generation later. The local uglies have long been defeated, but there's a whole unexplored continent out there – including not only bigger and brainier grendels but something even nastier which eats grendels alive and can reduce humans to littered bones at fast-forward speed. It seems a tactical error to make a mystery of this new killer and to defer the explanation for well over 200 pages (littered with occasional Huge Hints), when the answer proves to be exactly what any sf reader will have guessed in the first place.

Slightly more interesting are the colony's inner tensions. The bright youngsters are highly aware that the first colonists suffered IQ damage while frozen for the interstellar voyage ('ice on their minds'): thus they're dangerously overconfident. Certainly the wrinklies wouldn't approve of hair-raising teenage initiations involving live grendels.... As one might have predicted from Jerry Pournelle's involvement, the brilliant kids underestimate the continent's dangers and, ultimately, the cautious old military guru was right all along.

Dragons lumbers along pleasantly enough, with regular hotspots of action and a conclusion offering new hope for the colony's future. But somehow it doesn't quite cohere, as though the three authors were pulling in different directions and wasting energy that should have gone into the narrative. Train-journey reading.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: Sins of the Blood

(Millennium pb, £8.99, 357pp, ISBN 1 85798 450 1

It's vampires again, but with another different spin. Here, vampirism is openly recognized in the USA as an addiction or mental disease – and most folks' attitude is: "Who cares about addicts? They're street people. Not anyone I know...."

Kristine Kathryn Rusch writes powerfully and disturbingly from two warped viewpoints. Cammie the vampire hunter comes from a shattered family and has aching gaps of memory where she's blocked out past terrors. Here vampirism links all too convincingly with child abuse – and imagine the trauma of seeing a vampire parent die messily with a stake through the heart. Meanwhile, nice college boy Ben is "coming out". He slides easily into the horrific delights of bloodsucking, a hot sensual pleasure exceeding all others. Like a crack addict, he's drifting away from the human race.

This is potent, visceral stuff, a dangerous cocktail of blood and sex. Cammie and Ben are on a collision course dictated by their own suppressed past. It has to end in flames.

But the setting has weaknesses. America's laid-back attitude to the Vampire Problem makes it incredible that Wisconsin, of all states, should have legalized vampire-killing – not even by the Army or police, but by self-appointed paramedics. Elsewhere, apparently, the very worst cops can inflict on vampires is a painful dose of sunlight (the equivalent of 'the prisoner fell downstairs, guv') before releasing them. What's happened to the laws covering sexual assault and murder?

Rusch's foreground is compelling; ignore these background quibbles and it's a shivery, queasy read.

Robert Silverberg: Hot Sky at Midnight

Well into the 21st century, our planet is a mess for all the advertised reasons: global warming, stripped-away ozone, diseased water, atmosphere polluted with sulphur compounds and hydrocarbons. To breathe good air, try a holiday on a space habitat.

Robert Silverberg sees an almost cheery side of eco-doom – the dance band madly playing as the Titanic goes down. With grim humour he shows people behaving in totally human ways, having stormy affairs, playing megacorporation politics, cutting deals to make a quick buck from the wreck of the world.

Earth itself still has a lease of life. But the fate of the interesting "sanctuary" space-colony Valparaiso Nuevo offers a parable of things to come, with disaster emerging from a chance tangle of greed, sex, politics, distrust and incompetence. It's the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history.

Some intriguing sf touches are included – notably, a blind man who isn't blind. Silverberg's plotting is a neat piece of craftsmanship by one of the most fluent writers in the business. There are no real novelties, but it reads well.

Two partial, compromise solutions to the global mess emerge: genetic remodelling and a new space technology. So Hot Sky ends on a semi-optimistic note ... but Silverberg would probably agree that neither answer carries the same conviction as the original terrible question. Are we already too far down the easy path to an Earth that can't sustain human life? No one really knows.

Read, enjoy, and worry a little.

C.J.Cherryh: Foreigner

(Legend paperback, £5.99, 378pp)

The vast future history which C.J.Cherryh has developed over so many books is intimidatingly complex ... it's a tiny relief to find this independent tale (though with sequels coming).

Cherryh's love of complication continues. First there's a dispensable episode explaining how human colonists became hopelessly stranded in this alien system; then a tense account of First Contact from the nonhuman viewpoint ... and then, skipping over some centuries, the real story.

Humans lost the war for this world and are strictly confined to an island enclave, paying rent with scraps of advanced technology (but their secrets can't last forever). Apartheid rules: only one human, our diplomat/interpreter hero Bren Cameron, lives among the alien "atevi". Following a mystery assassination attempt, he's spirited away to a remote castle, held incommunicado "for his own safety", and left straining to understand what's really going on.

The atevi are huge, fascinatingly enigmatic people with a vague samurai flavour: fond of exquisite architectural harmonies, but also of blood-feuds as a way of life, and with a concept of duty replacing that of honour. "Trust was a word you couldn't translate. But they had fourteen words for betrayal."

Struggling for survival amid warring native factions and ambiguous alien hospitality, Bren starts piecing together a better understanding from contact with his own atevi bodyguards. His progress makes compelling if sometimes elusive reading. What he doesn't know is that the situation will soon be radically changed from outside....

A solidly constructed sf story of communication and non-communication.

Guy Gavriel Kay: The Lions of Al-Rassan

(HarperCollins hardback, £15.99, 582pp, ISBN 0 00 22463 9)

You can rely on Guy Gavriel Kay to produce something rather special. This hefty volume isn't a conventional fantasy (though one character has clairvoyant flashes), nor is it volume one of a trilogy. It's a rich unhistorical romance set in an alternative mediaeval Spain which has been rearranged to escape the straitjacket of history as we know it. And it's an utterly compulsive read.

The land of Al-Rassan is the southern half of the Spanish peninsula, long ago conquered by the desert tribes of alternative Africa, and now fallen into decay since the glory days of the Khalifs – the last of whom is assassinated in the prologue. In northern realms, kings pay lip service to the Jaddite religion, whose priests are very keen on crusades and nailing infidels to pieces of wood (sounds familiar?). War is inevitable. This is the story of the end of Al-Rassan.

Or rather, it's the story of a number of highly focussed, credible and sympathetic characters whose shifting loyalties and passions interlock, and whose survival we come to care about ... especially Jehane, the female Kindath (i.e. Jewish) healer whose concern for a patient sets the whole intricate plot in motion. We care about these people because Kay does, too. His attention is always on individuals: instead of lapsing into those prolonged, generalized battle scenes so common in fantasy, he indicates the horror of war and tyranny in short, sharp scenes of atrocity.

There is humour here too, and clever strategy, and effective depictions of love and companionship. Something not quite expected is always happening. One near-miraculous escape from death hovers on the brink of wish-fulfilment, but there's no fudging of the book's final dilemma – in which two supreme warriors, Ser Rodrigo Belmonte from the north and Ammar ibn Khairan of Al-Rassan, whose epic friendship and exploits have already filled many pages, find themselves on opposite sides and compelled to fight to the death while a wife and lover look on. Here Kay prolongs the suspense almost to screaming point ... and has a last surprise up his sleeve.

Read it.

Tanith Lee: Gold Unicorn

(Orbit paperback, £4.99, 179pp, ISBN 1 85723 301 8)

This slim fantasy is the sequel to Tanith Lee's Black Unicorn, with more apparently to come. But it's fairly self-contained and tells the story-so-far in a Foreword ... whose tone indicates straight away that this was written for "younger readers", though the publisher doesn't say so.

Thus, although Lee is a hotly sensuous writer who sometimes goes clear over the top (try her throbbing novel Heart-Beast some day), any hint of sex in Black Unicorn is downplayed with unusual austerity and restraint. Death is deplorable, and hurts, but happens only to spear-carriers in the middle distance....

The story? Heroine Tanaquil is a specialized sorceress who can mend things, and who travels with a magical talking creature called a peeve. Yes: nodding to the old James Thurber gag, it's a pet peeve. The sinister, conquering Empress Veriam turns out to be Tanaquil's half-sister Lizra from book one, who conscripts her to fix a devilish, steam-powered war machine built in the shape of a gold unicorn.

The easily repaired unicorn is effectively nasty. Several cities fall to Lizra's army; others soon learn the wisdom of surrendering. A few gentle ironies later, a wizard takes a hand and Tanaquil, Lizra and friends are deported to a hell-world which is pictured with some power as oppressive, slimy and yucky but ("younger readers" again) not really threatening. Will they escape? Need you ask?

A pleasant read with moments of fun, but very tame compared with Lee at full stretch.

Paul Kearney: Riding the Unicorn

(VGSF paperback, £5.99, 254pp, ISBN 0 575 05919 2)

A straightforward, tough little fantasy novel that takes a familiar theme – ordinary chap from our world is whisked into another place where magic works, to Serve a Higher Purpose – and seasons it with a large dose of blackly common sense. Being wafted to a simpler world that offers high adventure, good beer and the attentions of a gorgeous woman may be a gift horse that needs a very careful look in the mouth.

The protagonist John Willoby is not the usual handsome athlete who just happens to be a topnotch fencer with degrees in three classical languages. He's an ageing, overweight prison warder whose marriage has gone dully sour and who can only interpret the approaches of the other world as symptoms of madness. Soon he finds himself explaining his voices and visions to a condescending psychiatrist, with the looming prospect of either jobless despair or a long haul in a mental home.

Meanwhile, the fantasy realm is a brutal place where Willoby is wanted for one specific task – to commit a regicide which will immediately get him killed but, because he's a rootless outsider, can't be pinned on any known clan. The usurper can thus step into the throne with clean hands. And Willoby has half-convinced himself this is all a dream from which terminal violence can only wake him up....

There's nothing astonishingly new here (and incidentally, despite the title, no unicorn), but Kearney tells his story well and ends it on just the right note.

L.E. Modesitt Jr: The Order War

(Orbit hardback, £15.99, 581pp, ISBN 1 85723 330 1)

This is the fourth in L.E. Modesitt's "Recluce" series of highly rational fantasy novels. In this universe, magic has a strong flavour of physics. Bad guys practice chaos magic, handy for blowing up or incinerating the opposition. Good guys are limited to "order magic", requiring lots more skilled work and at first seeming merely defensive ... it's interesting to see this side's wizards devise clever loopholes, like iron arrowheads impregnated with order spells that cause chaos-tainted targets to explode messily.

Our hero Justen is an order-engineer of iron, steam and magic who, having fought hard and not quite won with conventional weaponry, goes on the run in a horrifying desert journey and ends up understanding too much about the order/chaos arms race. Implacable conservation laws are at work: strengthening one side increases the power of the other. After nearly inventing nuclear explosives but thinking better of it, Justen manufactures some only slightly less devastating weaponry and – almost single-handed – takes on the world.

Modesitt's story is engaging and exciting, though occasionally repetitive. In too many mealtime scenes, we discover again and again that Justen likes dark beer (and that others disapprove). I also wearied of the sound effect Thrap for every knock on a door, and the literally dozens of Hhhssstt, Sssttt and Crumppttt noises in the climactic firefight. What carries the book is its set-pieces of engineering and warfare, plus a satisfying sense that the workings of magic have been painstakingly thought out. Enjoyable stuff.

Harry Turtledove: Worldwar: Tilting the Balance

(NEL paperback, £5.99, 482p, ISBN 0 340 64899 6)

Harry Turtledove's sf tetralogy is an alternative war story with an audacious if slightly batty premise. When the alien invasion fleet arrives to annexe Earth for colonization, they find us already fighting: it's 1942.... In the Balance was book one; this is book two.

As is very traditional in sf, the Lizard invaders underestimated human progress and expected knights in armour. Their 1990s-style weaponry is still vastly superior, but with loopholes: paralysing communications with nuclear electromagnetic pulses is no help against old-fashioned relays and valves.

Turtledove tells a big story on many fronts, with obvious and unobvious ironies: the oppressed Warsaw ghetto supporting the invaders because anything must be better than the Nazis; Berlin and Washington nuked in an alien show of force; uneasy diplomacy as Allies and Axis find themselves in the same boat; heavy territorial losses in the USA; British radar development thrown askew by captured Lizard equipment with incomprehensible integrated circuits; the discovery that the invaders have an addictive craving for ginger....

Tilting the Balance continues all the earlier storylines (some come to shattering ends), but at its heart are reflections of the Manhattan Project. One lucky strike on an alien munitions ship has scattered weapons-grade plutonium over the landscape: who on Earth will first produce the Bomb, and where will it go off? Read the book.

And what next? The stunned alien Fleetlord answers: "I don't know." Nor will we until book three, Upsetting the Balance. Not great literature, but a rousing, satisfying blockbuster yarn.

S.P.Somtow: Vanitas

(Gollancz hardback, £16.99, 352pp, ISBN 0 575 05655 X)

Nowadays there are far too many vampire novels, and far too many over-extended trilogies. Vanitas, being volume three in a trilogy about vampires, did not bode well ... but S.P.Somtow carries it off in a torrent of manic narrative energy.

Timmy Valentine, having spent a couple of millennia as a juvenile vampire, has regained humanity by passing the curse to his unsubtly named lookalike Angel Todd. This damages Timmy's career as a rock star – he doesn't sing so well now that he has to breathe – but he sets off on a bizarre farewell tour which leaves a thick trail of human and vampire corpses

Besides the deeply revolting Angel, the cast includes an artist whose paintings of horribly killed Bangkok prostitutes (courtesy of Angel) are a wild US success; a blind Thai shaman who wears jewels in his eye-sockets; an ex-TV evangelist who we first meet cowering in the silver-warded toilet of his hotel room after the girls he picked up off the streets turn out to be vampires; an insane young female wannabe-vampire who isn't undead but hopes to become so by biting off chaps' extremities and drinking their blood anyway (these scenes had me crossing my legs and whistling nervously); a Native American visionary whose magical defence against coming horrors consists of walking backwards....

Also, in Valentine's memory-flashbacks, we meet characters from history – Vlad the Drac himself, Shakespeare, Marlowe (whose death-wound, a stab in the eye, has been mysteriously moved to his stomach), Jack the Ripper and more. Perhaps the silliest scene has Valentine explaining the esoterica of vampirism to Bram Stoker, the interested audience also including Wilde, Bosie, Swinburne, Holmes and Watson. Oh dear.

What makes this weird mixture work is Somtow's writing skill. The Thai scenes are predictably good: he's from Thailand himself. There are lurid set-pieces of mayhem and transformation on an opera stage, at the inevitable rock concert and – climactically – in an erupting volcano. And you get a full measure of spurting, steaming blood and bad sex.

I wouldn't say I liked it. But it's impressive.

John Barnes: Kaleidoscope Century

(Millennium hardback, £15.99, 252pp, ISBN 1 85798 269 X)

John Barnes's sf disaster epic Mother of Storms was hugely impressive. This new novel is inventive enough, with some nifty ideas, but leaves a strange taste in the mouth.

Anti-hero Quare was born in 1968: now it's 2109. He is suffering the partial amnesia that hits him regularly as side-effect of a rejuvenation virus. The personal data terminal that holds his backup memory offers out-of-order snapshots of what he did through the fraught 21st century....

And it's one hell of a century. History has already gone askew before 1995: here, something very different happened when Boris Yeltsin climbed on that tank. President Bush dies of mutant AIDS (not "the old, easy-to-prevent kind"). Wars escalate and civilization fragments, with smart weapons giving way to brilliant weapons, to computer viruses that can infect human brains – hence the Meme Wars and the quarantine of all Earth by the space colonies.

Quare's problem is that often he has several contradictory memories of the same event. The reader's problem is that although the first-person narrative makes captivating reading, Quare is an amoral bastard: first an American traitor spying for Russia, later a mercenary who kills countless innocents with minimal regret (in the case of women he follows orders and "serbs" them first).

Awaiting him in 2109 is a strange offer from the Organization that long ago was the KGB. Quare can, in a way, live his life again. Bad though the century was, he can still make it worse. Very clever, very black.

Anne McCaffrey & Jody Lynn Nye: The Ship Who Won

(Orbit hardback, £15.99, 333pp, ISBN 1 85723 315 8)

It's a mild shock to realize that Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang dates back to the 1960s. Those energetic stories of Helva the musical cyborg spaceship were something new: sf sentimentality that worked ... not much subtlety but lashings of throbbing emotional melodrama.

This latest book of the series was part-written by Jody Lynn Nye, who's certainly caught the 1990s McCaffrey tone – the slightly stale flavour of one sequel too many. It's colourful enough, though, with some of the original's distinctive scattiness. A typical foul space-oath goes, "Ramjamming fardling flatulating dagnabbing planet!".

Cyborg ship-brain Carialle and her "brawn" partner Keff are on a mission to seek new worlds, to boldly go, etc. Soon after First Contact, a sense of haunting familiarity emerges. The Enterprise – sorry, Carialle – is in the grip of an unknown force! Chief Officer Keff has been captured by native slavemaster wizards with amazing powers inexplicable by science! But one wizard is a nice girl who fancies Keff, and escapes with him in a prolonged chase scene! Meanwhile Carialle works out how to block the wizards' not-really-magical abilities....

If you can put up with the nagging resemblance to all too many previous novels and TV episodes, this adventure has a certain ramshackle charm. I forgot to mention that the planetary mess is set to rights by convincing everyone to live in harmony with each other, their environment, and some additional late-breaking aliens. If only this sort of thing worked on present-day Earth.

Robin Hobb: The Assassin's Apprentice

(HarperCollins hardback, £9.99, 375pp, ISBN 0 00 224606 6)

Hard-bitten readers may recoil from a mediaeval fantasy world where posh folk are called things like Shrewd, Chivalry and Verity. But there's a certain irony here: the names are supposed to enforce appropriate virtues by sympathetic magic, and aren't wholly effective. The narrator's awkward position in life comes from being the bastard son resulting from one of Prince Chivalry's rare lapses....

It's a fairly standard feudal scenario, threatened by unpleasant seagoing raiders with a chilling trick of returning their hostages alive and unharmed, yet destroyed. Magic exists, seemingly limited to mind-to-mind contact – prized as the Skill when practised among humans, but regarded as utterly abhorrent when done with animals. (A bit like sex, really.)

This sounds routine: but Hobb constructs a convincingly textured society through solid description, strong characters (women included, for once), an eye for social detail, and plausible court politics. As the king explains, an acknowledged royal bastard is a useful possession: he has the rank for high diplomatic missions but remains expendable. To make him even more useful in diplomacy, our nameless hero "Fitz" is apprenticed to the court assassin – a fascinating mentor-figure. He's also expected to learn the Skill, but from a sadistic teacher (like a Zen master turned rotten) who's coldly determined to prevent him. Sparks fly.

Two touchy "diplomatic" missions follow, full of surprise twists and reversals. I came to enjoy the narrator's company, and hope the full "Farseer" trilogy lives up to the promise of this first book.

Gene Wolfe: Caldé of the Long Sun

(NEL paperback, £5.99, 371pp, ISBN 0 450 61011 X)

"The Book of the New Sun", Gene Wolfe's exotic tetralogy of an incredibly remote future, is according to many critics the finest sf achievement of the 1980s. Now here's volume three of the tangential spinoff "The Book of the Long Sun", about a colossal multi-generational starship launched long before the New Sun's coming.

A large human and semi-human population lives in various warring towns on the inner surface of this cylindrical micro-world, the Whorl (whose Long Sun runs down the axis). Wolfe has already set a breakneck pace, revealing many of the Whorl's mysteries in just a few action-packed days. His hero Patera Silk is a kind of priest who has been touched by a god; since most gods live in an afterlife called Mainframe, there is normally uncertainty about the capital G. But maybe not this time.

Burglary. Vampirism both physical and psychic. Terrifying robot guards. Strange weapons. A talking bird, and flying men. Political upheaval. Secrets beneath lakes and in catacombs. Revolution and multifaceted war. "Gods" interfering more and more in events. An enemy airship eclipsing the Long Sun, and one dazzling glimpse of another new sun. Silk becoming unwilling Caldé (mayor) of his city....

This exciting, crammed action may be almost incidental, because everywhere are hints that the whorl is reaching journey's end. Next and last: Exodus from the Long Sun. The tension is extreme; Wolfe is a mesmerizing storyteller who won't let you go. Recommended – but read the books in order!

Tad Williams: Caliban's Hour

(Legend paperback, £4.99, 180pp, ISBN 0 09 926171 5)

There is a magical fascination about Shakespeare's The Tempest that makes writers itch to tinker with its scenario. Revisionist versions range from Lionel Fanthorpe's appalling sf travesty Beyond the Void, through the classic movie Forbidden Planet, to W.H. Auden's poem cycle The Sea and the Mirror ... and always the Caliban figure emerges as mysteriously important. Even Shakespeare gave this "brute" the most lyrical speech in the play.

Now Tad Williams lets Caliban tell his own story, decades afterward. Too late now for revenge on Prospero, five years dead; the much-maligned monster opens his heart to an older and sadder Miranda, after which there'll be nothing left but to kill her.

Prospero was driven to the island when expelled from Milan by usurping Antonio. But to Caliban, Prospero himself is the usurper – who stole his home, enslaved him, punished him cripplingly for coming to love Miranda, and set the demonic sadist Ariel to torment him. Finally, having thoroughly corrupted this former innocent with the complexities of speech, the wizard sailed off into the happy ending and left Caliban alone with no one to talk to. "I am a monster now," he sadly admits. Once, he wasn't.

This is hardly the newest of ideas, but Williams tells the story well. It is the tragic souring of a primitive Eden. Also there's a twist ending which is heavily foreshadowed, but works all the same. Nice one ... though the author's illustrations make Caliban look rather too much like Mowgli for complete conviction.

C.J.Cherryh: Invader

(Legend hardback, £15.99, 422pp, ISBN 0 09 944411 9)

The good news about this sequel to Cherryh's sf thriller Foreigner is that it's strong stuff, well up to the former standard. The bad news is that after reaching impressively high levels of tension, it halts at another dramatic cliff-hanger....

Cherryh writes grown-up sf about genuinely complicated situations. Invader sucks you into such devious swirls and eddies of diplomatic turmoil that occasional nods to action-adventure (assassinations, gunfire, kidnapping) register as distractions from the main excitement.

It's a multi-sided game on a remote alien world. The native atevi think along subtly different lines, their emotions most misleading when seemingly most human-like. A fragile human colony has managed to cope for 178 years despite communication problems which once led to war (the humans lost): the resulting treaty keeps the colony isolated from the atevi except for one diplomat-interpreter, currently our hero Bren Cameron. Now the lost starship which planted the colony has returned and could smash the precarious truce by its mere presence.

That's the simplified version. Now mix in multiple conflicting factions on the starship, within the colony (currently trying to replace Cameron with a blunderer whose dodgy grasp of atevi language has her saying "pregnant calendar" for "urgent appointment"), and among the atevi – Cameron learns in casual chat that the Assassins' Guild voted against accepting a contract on him....

It's dizzying stuff. Even resourceful Cameron may be losing his grip. Let's hope Cherryh puts an end to his and our screaming suspense in book three.

Ken MacLeod: The Star Fraction

(Legend hardback, £10.00, 341pp, ISBN 0 09 955871 8)

An impressive first novel, whose background of a country divided into semi-anarchic, data-raddled and fitfully warring enclaves has two significant differences from the standard cyberpunk future. The country is Britain; the viewpoint is heavily left-wing. Commies as heroes? What will the Yanks say?

The intricate setting emerges in tantalizing glimpses as sympathetic mercenaries clash in rattles of high-tech gunfire, hackers assault systems that hack right back into them, the dread UN/US Stasis police (Men In Black) try to suppress "deep technology" including the AI seemingly assembling itself in the net, and the "Black Plan" of Britain's outlawed but technically legitimate socialist government churns mysteriously away in its software labyrinths. One outfit's electronic letterhead implies much: "Registered Terrorist Organization #3254".

To paint such a detailed background while juggling multiple characters in a taut adventure narrative is a major sf skill, and MacLeod has got it. He's clever, he's witty, and his future has the right grainy feel, with important developments happening in pubs and motorway services as well as laboratories or cyberspace.

Admittedly I couldn't swallow all the plot devices: UN/US laser satellites capable of frying anything on Earth (where's the budget for them?), a super software utility that Internet depends on but whose operation no one understands (yes, yawn, it contains a Secret), and the entire working population of America supporting UK socialism against US/UN troops (ha bloody ha!).

It's still a nifty read with a laudable motto: "No More New World Orders".

Barbara Hambly: Bride of the Rat God

(Raven paperback, £4.99, 336pp, ISBN 1 85487 418 7)

Barbara Hambly puts together her fantasies with the elusively reliable magic of a master chef. The ingredients look all too familiar, the recipe seems perfectly standard, but when she uncovers the dish it's a gourmet treat that sends her fast-food rivals into paroxysms of jealousy.

The formula this time could hardly be more hackneyed: the cursed Chinese necklace whose female wearer is doomed to a sticky end as (you guessed it) ... the Bride of the Rat God. Just to add to the unreality, the story is set in 1923 Hollywood – with the Rat God stalking languorous megastar Chrysanda Flamande as she acts, or fails to act, in a magnificently tacky Biblical epic.

A slow-seeming start lays groundwork for a solidly constructed, well-researched narrative with real characters that you soon come to care about. The true heroine is the star's sister-in-law Norah, who has a jaundiced, common-sensical but affectionate view of Christine (no one is really called Chrysanda) and her fur coats, exotic poses, cocaine, lovers, yapping Pekinese dogs, etc. Meanwhile in Chinatown, Los Angeles, wizardry is not dead....

It builds from mere unease, through bad luck, nasty accidents and seemingly incidental murders (what were those toothmarks on the outer walls?), to full-blooded encounters with walking corpses, animated horrors from the La Brea tar pits, and worse. Can ancient Oriental wisdom combine with state-of-the-art movie technology to defeat the Rat God? Not without help from those all-important Pekinese.... Unputdownable entertainment.

Robert Weinberg: A Calculated Magic

(Raven paperback, £4.99, 234pp, ISBN 1 85487 350 4)

The main problem of most humorous fantasy is that it isn't funny. But Robert Weinberg mixes a batch of dotty notions here. There's a stolen phial of lethal anthrax spores, the Babylonian plague-god Nergal, the Old Man of the Mountains, an indestructible afreet, Loki, and the Furies themselves – currently employed by the KGB. Naturally the showdown with this crowd must take place in an eldritch realm of total unreality: it's called Las Vegas.

These supernatural menaces are forced into being by human belief, and are therefore defined by what's believed about them – villains, for example, always gloat at length and give you a chance to wriggle free of your bonds, because that's how it "really" happens in the movies.

Our likeable hero is a "Logical Magician", supposedly confronting the bad guys armed only with a knowledge of mathematical logic (homage to de Camp's and Pratt's 1941 The Incomplete Enchanter). This promises clever twists, but the maths is a letdown: the Sphinx knows Bertrand Russell's 20th-century paradoxes, but still falls for one 24 centuries old? And the Klein-bottle afreet-trap doesn't actually make sense....

Meanwhile the hero has just too many helpers: witch, dwarf artificer, Amazon weapons-mistress, Odin's ravens, a full set of Valkyries, Merlin, etc. The rescuing cavalry always comes over the hill a little too soon.

Weinberg's story sizzles along well enough (except when he pauses, repeatedly, to describe incredibly sexy female outfits in skintight Lycra) ... but it's never quite as suspenseful or mirthful as advertised.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch: The Fey: Sacrifice

(Millennium hardback, £16.99, 550pp, ISBN 1 85798 270 3)

Another fat fantasy apparently opening a fat trilogy.... Kristine Kathryn Rusch does usually give her material a new slant, though, and there are striking ideas scattered through this tale of a sleepy island beset by invading hordes.

The Fey are the invaders, empire-building sadists who have a near-monopoly of this fantasy world's magic. Their talent comes in specialist flavours: some Fey eat your soul and steal your body, while others are shape-shifters, weather-workers, prophets, creators of magical camouflage, or able to flay victims with their mere touch.

Meanwhile the farmers and craftspeople of Blue Isle seem – even to themselves – helpless to fight back once their protecting sea-hazards are bypassed by magically steered Fey ships. But, against all the invaders' nasty arts of death, the Blue Islanders have one unexpected weapon which is also the heart of their religion. Its use is devastating, but raises tortuous issues of morality: a holy sacrament that hits like a napalm attack.

The resulting armed stalemate is threatened by further complications: traps, betrayals, infiltrations, an ultimate dodgy compromise. Despite skipping over awkward periods of time (a full year at one point), the story seems over-long and over-detailed. Perhaps it wouldn't have if the narrative point of view didn't keep hopping, blockbuster-fashion, all over the place, and if more of the characters were likeable. It's hard to empathize with the chilly Fey viewpoint from which so much of the story is told. Still, there's plenty of excitement here.

Gene Brewer: K-PAX

(Bloomsbury large-format paperback, £7.99, 231pp, ISBN 0 7475 2203 0)

It's an awfully well-worn sf situation. There's this psychiatric patient who claims he's called "prot" (lower case, pronounced as in "protoplasm"), and has teleported to EARTH from distant K-PAX (he puts all planet names in capitals – even, somehow, when speaking). Such is the power of his personality and the mystery of his origins that other patients, hospital staff, and even the investigating psychiatrist Dr Gene Brewer find themselves thinking: "Hey, maybe he really is...."

Where do you go from there? Perhaps he's for real, but we note that Bloomsbury are cagily not marketing this book as sf. Perhaps he's a nutter who just happens to have access to unpublished astrophysical data and also the proven ability to see in the hard ultra-violet radiation band – something which ought to boggle the scientific world, though Dr Brewer seems curiously unexcited.

What's happening is a game of tease: after dangling these strong sf hints, the book heads the other way towards the possibility of a psychiatric solution, and finally leaves us with ... but that would be telling.

Meanwhile "prot" has a catalytic effect on the hospital – whose inmates' quirks seem too good to be true, as though selected from an Oliver Sacks anthology of fascinating cases. Miracle cures soon result from ignoring the absurd prejudices of mere Earthling science. Psychiatrists, what do they know?

It's interesting, irritating, tantalizing, and nicely told. Ultimately, though, however you put together the puzzle, there's always a piece that doesn't fit. Maybe this was the idea.

Alexander Besher: Rim: A Novel of Virtual Reality

(Orbit paperback, £6.99, 357pp, ISBN 1 85723 332 8)

This novel was shortlisted for the Philip K.Dick award; it scrambles real and unreal places like a post-cyberpunk version of Dick himself.

Here virtual reality interfaces with gooey New Age stuff (or from another viewpoint, ancient Oriental teachings) about inner spiritual control. The mysteries of ch'i energy can blow the heads off killer droids, or download the personality from a human brain without wires or modems. Gosh....

But that's small stuff. In 2027, Neo-Tokyo itself has been digitized and regularly goes offline by vanishing from ordinary geography. Another city is wholly virtual and has crashed, trapping countless VR-gaming kids in a crumbling cyber-wasteland threatened by viral Tibetan zombies. Can it be rebooted in time?

Besher has a genuinely deranged imagination. To confirm that the psychic detective hero is skilful enough to interrogate the newly dead, someone checks by ouija board. A space habitat offers a daft freefall golf course where you hit the balls into simulated black holes. The Tantrix 4.2 VR operating system (password: Om Mani Padme Aum) outdoes reality and runs on a prayer wheel. And you can order interactive karmic sushi.

Read it, and feel your brains turn to tasty sushi in real time!

Michael Scott Rohan: The Lord of Middle Air

(VGSF paperback, £5.99, 253pp, ISBN 0 575 06099 9)

It isn't the story, it's the way you tell it. Here's a routine-sounding fantasy plot: an unkillable Dark Lord with magical powers and an invincible fortress is luxuriating in villainy and planning new conquests, forcing our young hero to recruit dodgy supernatural aid and pay the price....

Rohan scores by giving all this a grittily realistic setting on the 13th-century Scots borders, full of period detail and featuring the real-life 'Border Wizard' Michael Scot (one of the author's own ancestors). As with Virgil and Roger Bacon, Michael Scot's book-learning got him a reputation for sorcery. Here he really is a wizard, riding a demon horse and explaining his magical firebolts with doubletalk about gunpowder in order to fool the Inquisition.

There is much bloody battle; evil sendings; an extended trip to Faerie, where time plays devious tricks; an ingeniously hopeless assault on the villain's real-world castle of Hermitage (more temporal bewilderment here, since my encyclopaedia says Hermitage was built in 1244, while Michael Scot died around 1236); the finding of a uniquely nasty loophole in the enemy sorcerer's demon-bought invulnerability; and an in-joke or two for fans of Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lay of the Last Minstrel, also featuring Michael Scot.

Without the ambitious scope of Rohan's "Winter of the World" and "Spiral" trilogies, this is an effective page-turner with a good gamy flavour of Scottish mist, earth, blood, dung and (though thankfully not to excess) dialect. Ian Miller's cover artwork is creepily appropriate.

Lois McMaster Bujold: Mirror Dance

(Pan paperback, £6.99, 610pp, ISBN 0 330 33433 0)

Lois McMaster Bujold must be doing something right: Mirror Dance won a Hugo as Best Novel this year, as did its predecessors The Vor Game and Barrayar in 1991 and 1992.

Bujold's vein of sf might be called cuddly militarism, with touches of humour, tasteful sex, and a powerful feelgood factor. The main series hero Miles Vorkosigan is deformed, undersized and brittle-boned (I've lost track of how often he resignedly feels another bone snap), but nevertheless a charismatic military genius and fabulous in bed. His physical weaknesses make him more interesting than sf's typical overmuscled bullies. Also he's a Vor Lord – everyone loves a lord – with a supremely supportive military family, and leads a double life as leader of a crack mercenary outfit which harries the nasty Cetagandan Empire and vile oppressors everywhere.

Mirror Dance features many characters from past episodes (which it helps to have read) – notably Miles's cloned twin 'brother' Mark, who here impersonates him, hijacks a mercenary spaceship, and sets off to free a lot of clones scheduled to have their brains scooped out and replaced by those of ageing originals. The resulting disaster leads to a rescue attempt from Miles, who ends up dead for a large chunk of the book and then, in an amazing sf innovation, is revived as an amnesiac....

The military action isn't altogether convincing: given the series background, the bad guys would surely have effective ground-to-air defences against these commando raids from space. Bujold doesn't dwell on the fighting, though, but on its aftermath: the pain of healing, the greater pain of realistic torture (from which recovery seems a little too swift), the grim dance of negotiated ransoms and reparation. A thoroughly hissable villain – whose motives, alas, are buried in an earlier episode – finally gets his come-uppance.

But there's another story here: plot and counterplot. An unlikely profusion of mirrors in the narrative (beginning with the title) reflects, as it were, the strange duality of the brothers. Miles is overpowering, over-confident, sometimes insufferable. His dark twin Mark – raised and trained as their father's intended assassin – needs to find his proper distance from Miles as neither an imitation nor a vengeful opposite. Ultimately, the relationship reaches convincing stability: fans of the series will cheer when Mark is finally able to take the piss out of his over-achieving brother.

It isn't a deep book, but it's good fun to read.

Jonathan Lethem: Amnesia Moon

(NEL paperback, £5.99, 249pp, ISBN 0 340 63224 0)

Jonathan Lethem attracted much attention with his first book, the twisted sf private-eye pastiche Gun, With Occasional Music. His second is even darker and stranger, set in a near-future America that has fractured into a variety of incompatible post-holocaust enclaves.

What was the disaster? In one town it was seemingly the Bomb and its spawn of mutants: one young girl character is covered in fur. Elsewhere it's a dread green mist by Stephen King out of Oz ... or invading aliens ... or a weird luck-based fascism where beautiful TV people rule an adoring population that's been made ugly ... or several other things.

Our hero, who has a multiple-choice past as Chaos or Everett or Moon, hits the road and drives through these literal nightmares. Somehow dreaming has got out of hand, and potent dreamers can re-imagine reality. Stray into the wrong dream, and you might wake as a midget, a 300lb lardbag, a clock, a bonsai tree – or not at all. One unsympathetic victim has been so mucked up that he now exists only as a drug effect: to chat with his image, you need a syringe to inject him into your veins. Very Philip K.Dick.

Amnesia Moon captures the essence of bad dreams, full of metamorphoses that can't quite be controlled. It ends on a tiny note of hope as Chaos/Everett begins to focus his own dreaming and improve things in small, local ways, for friends. Disorienting, blackly witty and memorable.

Darrell Schweitzer: The Mask of the Sorcerer

(NEL paperback, £5.99, 421pp, ISBN 0 340 64003 0)

In this grim and painful world (with a old-Egyptian mortuary flavour), being a sorcerer's son is no fun at all when you inherit the family business. The most reliable way to grow better at sorcery is to kill other sorcerers and absorb their talents – which, as with the Autarchic succession in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, means you end up with a crowd of dead personalities in your head like perpetual back-seat drivers.

Schweitzer knows his fantasy, and besides Wolfe he knowingly refers to Le Guin, Lovecraft and a host of myths. Early in the book the all too young hero Sekenre makes a harrowing night journey into the land of the dead, along a metaphysical river full of mud, stench, corpses, and countless crocodile-headed nasties, to encounter his own rotting (but sympathetic) mother, and a father whose plans for murderous eternal life have hardly been affected by a nasty death and the hacking-out of his eyes.

The second and third sections of this episodic novel are occasionally anticlimactic after the bloodstained horror of the first. Sekenre tangles with more vicious sorcerers, perfects his craft in the College of Shadows (where both the entrance exam and graduation ceremony are kill-or-be-killed trials), and finds himself still walking the tortuous maze of his father's scheme to achieve godhood by murdering a god.

Strong stuff: but despite Schweitzer's occasional attempts at quieter interludes, the overpowering weight of doom and darkness makes for an exhausting read.

Isaac Asimov: Gold: the Final Science Fiction Collection

(HarperCollins hardback, £14.99, 345pp, ISBN 0 00 224621 X)

When Isaac Asimov died to universal regrets in 1992, his publishers found themselves in a quandary. The great man's Hugo-winning 1991 novelette "Gold" deserved pride of place in a collection. But he left only a handful of other uncollected stories, few of them substantial. What to do?

The miserable answer: scrape together all possible fiction, including puns, minor squibs, even disguised futurological essays. Pad it out with introductions to anthologies ... what's the point of reprinting pieces telling us that the following stories (which do not follow) are spiffy, without even revealing what book Asimov was introducing?

Last come many brief editorials from Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, about sf and writing sf. These often contain interesting nuggets despite crippling space restrictions, but their presentation here is dismal. Asimov mentions a previous editorial; it appears on a later page. He promises to continue the subject next month; next month's editorial is omitted. When chronology is important, you must scour the acknowledgements pages to find which year is "now" – but still won't learn where any piece originally appeared. Three have already been reprinted in Asimov on Science Fiction (1981).

Fortunately some of the fiction is worthwhile. "Hallucination" is a solidly old-fashioned sf story of an alien planet with Mysterious Phenomena – readable despite a shortfall of suspense. "Kid Brother" offers a new angle on an old (1950) Asimovian cautionary theme: that making robots utterly safe and lovable can lead to human tragedy. "Cal" is another robot story whose initially slow-witted metal narrator seeks upgrading because he's been bitten by the same lifelong bug as our author: the urge to write. His literary progress is amusingly developed, with examples – including a pastiche of Asimov's own "Azazel" fantasies.

Finally and most unusually, there's the inward-looking "Gold". Like Ngaio Marsh's last detective novel Light Thickens, this begins as a fictional meditation on achieving the perfect production of Shakespeare. Marsh picked Macbeth on stage; Asimov's choice is King Lear as a digitally enhanced, manipulated and subminal-crammed 'compu-drama'. When it's done, a lowly author approaches the now world-famous compu-dramatist of Lear, suggesting he should adapt this sf story with an all-alien cast ... which, we soon realize, is the central section of Asimov's The Gods Themselves. So the story interestingly (if a little clumsily) dramatizes his own ideas of how to film the unfilmable, and ends on a note of atypical modesty.

Read the book for "Gold", but in paperback.

David Zindell: The Wild

(HarperCollins hardback, £15.99, 477pp, ISBN 0 246 13776 2)

This big, bold, exhausting sf epic is Book Two of "A Requiem for Homo Sapiens". Book One was the substantially fatter The Broken God, itself a sequel to Zindell's hefty debut novel Neverness. And it seems there's more to come.

The large-scale action revolves around far-future gods. Some used to be men and women, now "vastened" in computer form and spread across entire star clusters. One, the Silicon God, is a hate-filled rogue AI which has manipulated an ancient human church until its mission is to convert all suns – into supernovae. Hence the Vild or Wild, a huge, nova-blasted sea of space where the intricate mathematics of spaceflight collapses into fatal, fractal chaos. Naturally this is where our hero Danlo has to go.

All he wants is to halt the destruction of suns, find his demigod father, and obtain a cure for the vile plague afflicting his people. Dizzying journeys through mathematical space ("He came to rest on a branch of a decision tree") lead to three major planetfalls. Each time, Danlo is tested almost to destruction – by a god, by a gestalt supermind and by that fanatical Church. He wins through, but his three goals remain elusive.

Zindell writes colourfully and well, though sometimes to excess – straining at length for extra profundity, over-egging his lurid descriptions. For all the sound and fury of fine writing, The Wild doesn't advance its plot far enough to justify so many pages. Still ... I'll be reading the sequel.

Jessica Berens: Queen of the Witches

(Arrow paperback, £5.99, 185pp, ISBN 0 09 925411 5)

Witchcraft is alive and well in 1990s England – but in this witty little squib, the fact that magic works is decidedly secondary to witchy politics. The position of Queen of the Witches is falling vacant, along with its coveted perks of total spiritual mastery, the ultimate spellbook The Very Moste Secrete Booke of Witchery, control of Britain's occult consumer watchdog, and six million quid in the Coven of Covens bank account. This struggle for power could be almost as terrifyingly vicious as a Tory leadership contest....

Jessica Berens presents realistically oddball characters in offbeat situations. What chance has the scatty but sincere Sheenah (who has a psychopathic cat-familiar and gives evening classes in witchcraft – "DROP IN FOR A SPELL") against her all-devouring, glamorously telegenic rival Myra, who secretly walks the Left Hand Path and uses the Dark Archangel Choronzon to play the stock market? Meanwhile one of Sheenah's class has an awkward quest for the magical ingredient wolf's hair in Regent's Park Zoo, and another reaps the consequences of weaving a love charm with an oversized crystal intended for "quelling riots and stopping wars".

There's a shrewd eye for personal style: of course it's a Hardy Amies suit out of which Myra steps to kneel naked at her Black Altar. And when the Midsummer Sabbat is celebrated in the traditional way, this turns out to mean red wine and slices of quiche. No huge belly-laughs – just constant little smiles. It's a nice read, though almost determinedly slight.

Garry Kilworth: House of Tribes

(Bantam hardback, £12.99, 430pp, ISBN 0593 033760)

Garry Kilworth has already written successful animal fantasies from the viewpoints of foxes, wolves and hares. This time he's thinking small: most characters here, including the hero Pedlar, are mice.

Pedlar is a hedgerow mouse whose ancestral voices call him to an unknown destiny in the old House inhabited by warring mouse tribes to whom it seems as roomy as Gormenghast. In and around the house are deadly killers, including a shrew, an owl, a rat, two cats, and a psychopathic child who traps small animals to collect their skeletons. Older humans, known to mice as "nudniks", don't seem to threaten the mice and may not even be intelligent....

The problem with nudniks is that they eat far too much. With a flash of Einstein-like insight, a mouse realizes that if they can only drive these gluttonous creatures away, the ever-refilling Larder will be all theirs! So the Great Nudnik Drive begins, and is carried out with devilish cunning. Pedlar's destiny is to deal with the aftermath.

It's a witty story, full of neat ideas. Houses, it is thought, may be the empty shells of extinct giant snails. The book-eating mice in the Library can't read, but gain knowledge from odd volumes by inwardly digesting them. Racial memories warn of what to do when the exterminator comes. The dreaded Deathshead samurai mice use Ik-to, a lethal combat biting technique. And there are sensual prose poems on the Joy of Cheese.

A fast-moving fantasy with real charm.

Bernard Werber: Empire of the Ants

(Bantam, £9.99, 273pp, ISBN 0593 03385X)

This was a French bestseller as Les Fourmis ... it's not Bernard Werber but his translator who stole the H.G.Wells story title. Parts of the novel are fascinating; other parts are stunningly unbelievable.

Werber may be the Michael Crichton of France – awesome research, dodgy plot. His story is mostly told from the viewpoint of ants, nicely researched and nastily detailed. Inevitably, to make this work, the ants are given more individual intelligence than seems plausible. But it's a gripping tale of a truly alien society fighting alien wars, given extra bite since the alien planet is Earth.

The anthill epic works well. Unfortunately there's a huge structural problem in the parallel human plotline, which must evidently lead to communication with the ants. Werber has little to say about this – just a few pages of exposition before the ironic cliffhanger ending. His ridiculous delaying action involves dozens of people successively descending sinister cellar stairs into the bowels of the earth and never coming out again.

To British eyes the French are a weird lot, who despite the end of the arms race are madly keen to explode nuclear weapons in the Pacific. But even French authorities, knowing that civilians and firemen and policemen have been mysteriously swallowed up, would bloody well send in the military to investigate that cellar! What they do here is to brick up the hole, post a warning message, and let an old lady move into the flat. Good grief.

Great ants, shame about the logic.

Sheri S. Tepper: Shadow's End

(HarperCollins paperback, £5.99, 388pp, ISBN 0 00 647342 3)

Sheri Tepper is fond of writing highly moral science-fictional parables, often set in horribly immoral ecosystems. Probably the worst sufferers will be women, and everything will turn out to be the fault of men. You know.

But she does it well. This time the prime unpleasantness is a gradually unveiled eco-theological scam, run by male priests and inflicted on women, whose rosy visions of physical immortality in an instant afterlife are just the cover-up for a symbiotic cycle that makes liver flukes and parasite wasps look like cosy altruists.

Meanwhile, on a more cosmic scale, humanity on countless colony worlds is erasing all other life – even birds, fish, trees – to make room for the teeming offspring of a religion that forbids birth control and long ago filled up Old Earth. The Grand Canyon alone is now a low-rise apartment block housing a billion people. Could such things ever happen? Is the Pope Catholic?

Meanwhile, something incomprehensible from Out There is busy erasing the stain of humanity from entire planets. Meanwhile, literally invisible underclasses fume and fret. Meanwhile, a century-old biological weapon has been armed and fused. Meanwhile.... All these plot threads are knotted agonizingly together, culminating in a mini-sermon from (oh dear) the superbeing who may well have seeded the entire galaxy.

Tepper's writing is solidly good throughout, and although it's always a bit disappointing when a pure sf plot is wrapped up with deus ex machina assistance, the book reads very well.

Nicola Griffith: Slow River

(HarperCollins paperback, £4.99, 344pp, ISBN 0 00 648033 3)

It's an old science-fictional plot device – to chuck your lead character out of a wealthy, privileged existence and into the horrible sewers of a future world. Nicola Griffith, a fine writer, rings changes on the theme to produce something rather special. Her wounded but slowly recovering heroine Lore is memorable.

More than one slow river flows through the story: a literal river in a city, the underground rivers of tainted water whose round-the-clock decontamination offers the real excitement of a believable and dangerous future job, and a darker river of memory polluted by long-ago unpleasantness that needs to be traced and confronted.

Lowlife cross-currents are skilfully deployed: credible Internet charity scams, kidnapping, designer drugs, sex (usually lesbian), sadism, advanced digital porn, sabotage, information and identity theft – all solidly human, without the easy dazzle of cyberpunk cliché. There are no disposable characters. Life isn't cheap.

High life proves worse. More than one member of Lore's multinational-owning family is full of maggots and rot beneath the glittering exterior. Big business simultaneously encourages and absolves itself from ecological crimes by engineering genetic miracles with special loopholes designed to maintain profits. Life in the bottom muck is cleaner: towards the end Lore can say proudly, 'I've lived here three years. I'm one of the people I used to be scared of.'

Slow River is a mature sf novel which pulls off the difficult trick of combining a solidly decent moral stance with compelling readability. I was impressed.

Brian Sibley illus. John Howe: There and Back Again: The Map of the Hobbit

(HarperCollins booklet, £4.99, 23pp plus fold-out map, ISBN 0 261 10326 1)

After the success of the Ankh-Morpork and Discworld Mapps by Stephen Briggs and Terry Pratchett (with invisibly tiny credits for mere artist Stephen Player), it's inevitable that other authors should leap aboard the bandwagon with identically formatted map-books. Here's that up-and-coming fantasist J.R.R. Tolkien....

Alas: when opened out, the map is a disappointment. It's reminiscent of the computer ploy that offers software in an 'entry level' version, deliberately crippled and made unsatisfactory so it won't compete with the full-scale program – that is, The Map of Tolkien's Middle-Earth from the same publisher. Although Middle-Earth is well mapped, the unwritten rule here is that no geographical detail can be included unless it's in Tolkien's own minimalist map for The Hobbit.

This rule is followed with insane literal-mindedness. Hobbiton, where Bilbo's adventure starts, obviously ought to be shown ... but Tolkien only had room for a westward-pointing arrow, faithfully reproduced here. His original ink drawing of Mirkwood looked far more interestingly crowded than this map's 'realistic' green smear, apparently snapped from above by Eagle Photographic Services. Pedants will notice that one 'Ford' caption is omitted.

How can such a sparse map fill out a 29" x 28" poster? One obvious answer would be to incorporate additional detail from Thror's expanded sketch of the Lonely Mountain region, also featured in The Hobbit. This is not done, although a tiny version appears in the attached booklet. Instead, over two-thirds of the glossy, coloured 'map' is filled up with framing devices: an elaborate border and title, a dragon, and a curiously naff picture of the dwarfs' songfest in Bilbo's house. The whole thing conjures up an eerie, nostalgic sense of posters Blu-Tacked to students' walls in about 1970.

The slim booklet also offers a terse plot summary of The Hobbit, a few well-known snippets of publishing history, some descriptions of places, a letter written in runes by Tolkien, and a plug for the more detailed map. Bilbo's expedition must have had a copy of the latter, or they'd never have reached the Lonely Mountain at all.

Suzy McKee Charnas: The Furies

(The Women's Press, paperback, £6.99, 383pp, ISBN 0 7043 4422 X)

Suzy McKee Charnas entered sf with a grim, clear-sighted and highly intelligent pair of feminist novels: Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. The first described a vile post-holocaust mess where men treat slave women ("fems") as scapegoats for the world's evils; the second offers the alternative of a lesbian separatist society which perpetuates itself by parthenogenetic birth of daughters identical to their mothers.

But that option isn't available to former fem slaves. Their own bloodlines are doomed without making some use of the hated male foe. So in this third book, the once-enslaved protagonist Alldera returns to the nasty male-run Holdfast with an army of liberation and conquest. Her expensive victory would be the happy ending of a lesser book ... but Charnas doesn't stop there.

Defeating the men brings the problem of what to do with them. Killing the lot is no solution. Enslavement and revenge are subtler snares. At first it seems only fair, after the old horrors of Holdfast, that the unjust situation should be turned upside down – with the former oppressors suffering arbitrary punishment or death. Clearly, though, this means an opposite injustice.

Even ignoring the men, the effects on the women are fearful. As Nietzsche famously warned, if you battle too long with monsters you may yourself become a monster. Alldera finds the worst monsters emerging from her own side. Power struggles and painful compromises lead to momentary peace – but a further book is surely needed. Strong, effective stuff.

Octavia Butler: Parable of the Sower

(The Women's Press, paperback, £6.99, 299pp, ISBN 0 7043 4421 1)

Here is western America in 2024. By then, starry-eyed sf utopias expect the world will have been transformed by the wonders of genetic engineering and nanotechnology. But what if our lucky numbers don't come up?

Octavia Butler's future USA is still recognizable after thirty years slipping downhill. Food and water are running short. Congress is downplaying effete luxuries like science. Crime goes unreported and fire-fighting is DIY, thanks to high fees charged by police and fire services. Company-run towns are turning wage slavery into real slavery. People living something like a ordinary 1990s lower-middle-class life do so on the edge of desperation – hand to mouth, behind inadequately fortified walls, regarded as wealthy targets by the dispossessed, and under perpetual siege.

Our heroine Lauren Olamina is a young black woman who knows she must escape her harassed community as it goes under. She has worked out a practical philosophy or hands-on religion for this dark times, a small seed of hope: "Earthseed". As she travels, other refugees from chaos gather around her in a series of moving, terrifying, funny and loving encounters.

This should be nightmarish, but Butler's vivid, classy writing and characterization lift it far above the dystopian rut. No easy, wish-fulfilling miracles are on offer. Instead, there's what John Clute calls a slingshot ending, with the storyline arcing beyond the end of the book towards a future in which (fingers crossed) Lauren's people will make it. I hope they do. So will you.