Above All Things, by Tanis Rideout, Penguin, RRP£12.99, 400 pages
While ill-fated mountaineer George Mallory makes his final attempt to scale Mount Everest in 1924, his devoted yet frustrated wife Ruth faces her own emotional challenges at home in Cambridge with their three children. Or so Canadian poet Tanis Rideout’s split narrative respectfully imagines, informed in part by the concise letters the couple wrote to each other.
Above All Things is a compelling fictional account of Mallory’s ascent with his faithful junior, Andrew “Sandy” Irvine. The climbers reflect upon their motivations, while Ruth’s last day before widowhood is acutely frozen, hour by hour, as she questions the evidence that “duty seems to be different for men and for women”.
As the mountain engulfs certainty and security for both husband and wife, Rideout’s debut thankfully avoids indulgent sentimentality in its introspective exploration of marriage, disappointed expectations and mortality.
Review by Camilla Apcar
The Iraqi Christ, by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright, Comma Press, RRP£9.99, 176 pages
Hassan Blasim’s second collection of stories reflects the tragic recent history of his native Iraq: he writes of suicide bombings, corrupt NGOs and trigger-happy US occupiers. But in these brief, unsettling tales, realistic elements are transformed into something darkly surreal.
In “A Wolf” an Iraqi émigré receives a lupine visitor, perhaps symbolic of the violence he has left behind; in “The Hole”, a shopkeeper is trapped in a cave with a cannibalistic old man and the corpse of a Russian soldier. Blasim’s vivid prose reflects the way the fantastic and the ordinary collapse into a Kafkaesque jumble during urban conflict: one narrator likens war to “a photocopier churning out copies”.
Perhaps the finest piece here is “A Thousand and One Knives”, which tells of a group of Baghdad residents who can make weapons magically disappear. In this moving final story, Blasim’s macabre images give way to an unexpectedly sensitive depiction of friendship.
Review by David Evans
In One Person, by John Irving, Black Swan, RRP£7.99, 622 pages
At the heart of John Irving’s latest saga is Kittredge, the beautiful and confident wrestling star of Favourite River Academy. Bill Abbott, Irving’s narrator, hates Kittredge for his casual cruelty – but also has a powerful crush on him (and on the town’s mannish librarian). This tension swiftly escalates into a public crisis of sexual identity that defines the promiscuous course of Bill’s life and career.
Bill’s adolescent anguish, dysfunctional relationships, writing ambitions and flight from 1950s small-town Vermont are standard fare for Irving regulars. But his coming out as a bisexual man, not fully trusted either by gay men or straight women, adds a strong moral undertone to the novel’s tragicomic interludes.
Although lacking the pace of previous novels, In One Person flaunts its themes of cross-dressing, androgyny and sexual mutability to great effect; the result is engaging, provocative, and surprisingly mournful.
Review by James Urquhart
Pandemonium, by Warren Fahy, Tor, RRP$24.99, 319 pages
Fragment, Fahy’s excellent 2009 debut, was about a “lost world” Pacific island teeming with freakish predators. The ecosystem he invented was memorably and unrelentingly hellish.
His sequel, Pandemonium, focuses on Nell and Geoffrey Binswanger, scientists who survived the terrors of the first novel, and some of the “sels” (intelligent indigenes like a cross between insect and monkey) they found. The couple are assisting a Russian oligarch who has laid claim to an underground city originally built by Stalin in caverns beneath the Urals. The new owner envisages a billionaires’ playground but here, too, is a menagerie of subterranean monsters.
Fahy’s prose thuds at times but his story is pure action. However, the real joy lies in the extraordinary biological nightmares he dreams up, such as airborne jellyfish that shed venomous cells on to their prey and “ghost octopuses” that manipulate their hosts like marionettes.
Review by James Lovegrove
The Age Atomic, by Adam Christopher, Angry Robot, RRP£8.99, 352 pages
Empire State was one of last year’s sci-fi treats: a debut that combined boundless ambition with an abiding love for the history and mythology of New York. Its sequel, The Age Atomic, again centres on down-at-heel gumshoe Rad Bradley, who walks the mean streets of a Manhattan full of retro-futuristic robots and Golden Age superheroes.
This New York exists inside a “pocket universe”, once tethered to our reality before the connection was severed. Now it is succumbing to earth tremors and an endless winter. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Fissure, which formerly bridged the two worlds, plans are afoot to re-establish the link and launch an assault using an army of killer robots.
The first novel revelled in 1930s noir movies and pulp fiction. This one – a worthy successor – touches on the Red Menace paranoia of the dawn of the nuclear era but has the same jazzy plotting and anything-goes attitude that made Empire State such an unalloyed pleasure.
Review by James Lovegrove