The 2020 British Fantasy Awards, announced last month, offered up a set of pleasingly varied and diverse shortlists, with women authors predominant in every writing category. Among the winners were RJ Barker, whose The Bone Ships won the Robert Holdstock Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Adam Nevill, whose The Reddening won the August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and Priya Sharma, whose Ormeshadow won the award for Best Novella. Laura Mauro stood out as a double victor — her Sing Your Sadness Deep named as Best Collection and “The Pain Eater’s Daughter” for Best Short Fiction — while Rebellion Publishing was recognised as Best Independent Press.
Rebellion is the parent company of plucky SF imprint Solaris, which is responsible for Aliya Whiteley’s fourth novel Skyward Inn (Solaris, £14.99), an evocative piece of rural futurism set in the author’s native Devon. Some years hence, humankind has discovered a space gateway to a richly resourced planet named Qita, and wasted no time colonising and exploiting that world. An émigré Qitan called Isley now cohabits with Earthwoman Jem, and together they run the pub of the book’s title, nestled amid the moors and tors of the now self-segregated, fiercely independent West Country. Another Qitan, Won, turns up unexpectedly at their doorstep, bringing trouble. Meanwhile, a strange, transformative disease is ravaging the region.
Jem is an aloof character, all her relationships — whether with Isley, her son Fosse, or her brother Dom — being conducted at arm’s length. Through her, Whiteley explores questions of identification, attachment and belonging, tying everything together in a wonderfully surreal and weirdly uplifting denouement.
Another pair living in countryside seclusion are twins Anna and Adam, the last remaining members of an apocalyptic cult presided over by ailing, misogynistic Koan, in Sue Rainsford’s Redder Days (Doubleday, £14.99). With the long-prophesied end of the world repeatedly failing to manifest, the siblings’ mother has quit the commune with everyone else, and Anna has become a nocturnal creature, while Adam revels in the daylight, although this separateness does not prevent a quasi-incestuous relationship developing.
Using multiple viewpoint narrators and time shifts, Rainsford returns to images of redness, symbolic of blood, disease, fear, even womanhood. The writing is dauntingly elliptical, the atmosphere of the novel charged with doom. Uneasy reading for uneasy times.
Back to the West Country, where much of the action of Lizzie Fry’s The Coven (Sphere, £14.99) takes place. Fry posits a world in which witchcraft is real and the women who wield its power are marginalised, oppressed and in some cases imprisoned — not least in the US, where a Trumpian patriarchal president holds sway. Young heroine Chloe Su assumes the plot’s “chosen one” role — she is referred to as The One — learning how to harness her formidable magical gifts to resist authoritarianism and bring about change.
It’s a fairly basic dystopian potboiler, the prose riddled with thudding thriller-ese (“Irritation knitted its way through the fibres of his muscles”). Still, there’s rarely a dull moment. The same can’t be said for another dystopian feminist fable, Body of Stars (Hodder Studio, £14.99) by Laura Maylene Walter, which favours atmosphere over pace and scene-setting over incident.
In this book’s alternate universe, natural marks on the skin of the female body are predictors of the future. Mutable during early youth, at puberty they become fixed and map out the remainder of the bearer’s life. While the process is taking place, the “changeling”, as she is known, develops a supernaturally irresistible sexual allure to men, and rape is the all-too-common result. This is the calamity that befalls protagonist Celeste, who afterwards, with her brother Miles, resolves to change the world for the better. Can free will overcome fate?
The novel takes a leisurely stroll through a minefield of hot-button topics, and for that, if nothing else, its audacity is admirable.
Finally, a couple of “lasts”. In Bethany Clift’s Last One at the Party (Hodder and Stoughton, £12.99), a lethal flu-like pandemic leaves practically everyone dead apart from the narrator. She first decides to go on a drugs and shopping binge in London, then settles down to the business of survival while raking over her past, finding redemption amid the emptiness of a disease-devastated UK. Funny and profanity-laden, you could call this “Bridget Jones Does the Apocalypse”.
Meanwhile, Catriona Ward’s twist-filled The Last House on Needless Street (Viper, £12.99) arrives festooned with excited blurbs from the likes of Stephen King and Joe Hill. Dee moves into the house next door to Ted, who she believes murdered her sister some years earlier. Ted lives with his daughter Lauren and cat Olivia, and the story unfurls from the viewpoint of all four characters, including the cat. The book sits in that twilight margin between psychological thriller and Gothic horror, with Ward, twice the recipient of the August Derleth Award, beautifully wrongfooting the reader every step of the way.
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