The Book of Sand (Cent £ 12.99) is the first novel under the name Theo Clare, a pseudonym for Clare Dunkel, a writer better known by another pseudonym, Mo Hayder. As Hayder, Dark has produced a series of highly successful and dark visceral crime novels, starting with Voëlman in 2000. Unfortunately, she died last July of motor neurone disease, at the age of 59, The Book of Sand, with his follow-up The Book of Clouds, to be published posthumously.
What we have here is a fantasy about faith and the search for spiritual security – and while it’s not quite as dark as any of the Hayder titles, it’s not much less grueling either. One of its dual narrative directions takes place in a strange, hostile desert where a group of diverse individuals strive to find an artifact known as the Sarkpont, which may or may not deliver their salvation; at the same time, they must fend off rivals and hide from deadly, demonic creatures they christened Djinni.
The other string follows contemporary American teenager McKenzie, who is obsessed with deserts and – as she continues to see imaginary lizards – is suspected of being schizophrenic. How the two plot lines coincide is part of the novel’s unfolding mystery, and its end paves the way for next year’s sequel, which, one hopes, will expand and explain the book’s ambitious religious parable.
There is a similar mix of mysticism and brutal realism in How high do we go in the dark (Bloomsbury £ 16.99) by Japanese-American author Sequoia Nagamatsu. A collection of linked short stories, the book begins with the discovery of a millennial body in the thawed Siberian permafrost. A contagious virus lurking in the mummified remains loosens and continues to sow destruction all over the world, killing children first and then adults by mutating their internal organs. The book follows its effects over a span of years, until its successful extinction and beyond, to a distant future when civilization has been exhausted and irrevocably changed.
The book was designed and completed long before the pandemic, and thus, mercifully, does not appear as some passionate Covid allegory. Nagamatsu rather uses his narrative to explore love, loss and sadness. One section, “City of Laughter,” set in an amusement park with a roller coaster designed to kill young people, is particularly moving; another, “Pig Son,” in which a scientist seeking a cure for the disease creates a pig with human-level intelligence is pure tragicomedy. How high do we go in the dark also includes interstellar travel, alien astronauts, and life after death, and if it ultimately turns out to be no greater than the sum of its parts, those parts themselves are individually captivating.
Interstellar travel and aliens are likewise features of Mickey7 (Solaris £ 16.99), and so, in a way, is life after death. This excellent offer from Edward Ashton sends us to the distant Niflheim, a frozen planet where a group of colonizers settled. The titular character, Mickey Barnes, is what is known as an Expendable. Every time he is killed, his consciousness is loaded into a freshly cloned body and he continues where he left off. Of course, the only works that come his way are the most humble and potentially life-threatening.
When his seventh incarnation suffers an accident, Mickey is left for dead, but survives. When he returns to the colony, he finds that an eighth Mickey has meanwhile been generated and there are not the resources to keep both alive. In addition, conflict is brewing between the colonists and the large, insect-native natives who have called them by the nickname “creepers”. It is a story told with rigor, zeal and cheerful black humor.
It is also in frozen climates, but still somewhat closer to home All the white spaces (Titan Books £ 8.99), a debut by Ally Wilkes. Shortly after World War I, some British explorers left for Antarctica. They are close to their destination when a disaster strikes, forcing them to hide on the ice. There, with barely enough equipment to survive, they are not only dealing with the treacherous sub-zero conditions, but also with malicious ghosts luring them out of shelter to freeze to death.
Protagonist Jonathan Morgan hid on board the ship, determined to prove his worth after both his older brothers were killed in the trenches. However, it is not just ideas of bravery that drive him: Jonathan, born woman, wants to escape a charming life and be free to embrace his true generation.
The idea of a polar expedition surrounded by supernatural forces was the basis of Dan Simmons’ formidable The Terror (2007), but All the white spaces differs in so far as the abomination is subjective and deeply metaphorical, indicative of a nation traumatized by war and struggling to process the catastrophe it suffered. This and the main character’s well-drawn inner turmoil make it an original and gripping – not to mention disturbing – read.
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