Reviews of BSFA Nominees

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British SF Association Nominees 2005

NOVEL

  • Century Rain, Alastair Reynolds (Gollancz SF)
  • Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson (HarperCollins)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
    The Harry Potter surrogate entry for the year is actually pretty good, although, like HP, it goes on longer than it really needs to. Clarke's first novel is a meticulous accounting of the eponymous English gentlement and their effort to restore the practice of magic in the early 19th century. Norrell is the scholarly one, the first to make some sense out of the various ancient texts left by his predecessors, where Strange starts out as his apprentice but quickly displays more natural talent that allows him to quickly eclipse his mentor in the scope of the magic he attempts. While Norrell is reasonably content to work for the British government holding back floods and controlling the weather, Strange is sent off to the European front to do the bidding of Lord Wellington in his various campaigns on the continent. Throughout the book, magic is treated as a somewhat obscure but totally ascertainable enterprise for those with the knowledge and the perserverance (Norrell tends to make it harder for other would-be magicians by hording all the old books he can find on the subject). Things start to go awry when Norrell reluctantly brings back a popular society woman from the dead, and starts a chain of events that leads to magic coming back to England to a greater degree than he had bargained for. Clarke deftly handles the gradual loss of control of the protagonists with the things they've set in motion, but I don't think there's much in the way of subtext in there, other than poking fun at the general arrogance of the average English aristocrat. Even the church is swept up by the advent of magic, where you would tend to think they would put up more of a fuss. Perfectly suitable for younger readers, too, it never gets too graphic or too creepy. It basically is one long story, and although it's broken up into three parts, I don't think they would've help up independently. A significant time investment, but in the end a memorable and offbeat story wins you over.
  • Newton's Wake, Ken MacLeod (Orbit)
  • River of Gods, Ian McDonald (Simon and Schuster)
  • Stamping Butterflies, Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Gollancz SF)
  • SHORT FICTION

    'Delhi' Vandana Singh (in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future, ed. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan)
    'Mayflower II' Stephen Baxter (PS Publishing)
    'Point of No Return' Jon Courtenay Grimwood (New Scientist, Christmas/New Year)
    'The Faery Handbag' Kelly Link (The Faery Reel: Tales from the Twilight Realm, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling)
    Reviewed September 2007: There would seem to be no such thing as a bad Kelly Link story, and her usual choice of the fantasy-laced fable isn't something I would normally even want to read, so that's saying a lot. This one mixes the fable and legend of the past with a fantasy story told in the present, about a young girl whose eccentric grandmother, Zofia, tells a lot of outrageous stories surrounding her eponymous handbag, which serves as some sort of portal to another world where time passes at a different rate. Her own husband lives in there and only comes out once every 20 years for a day or so. No one believes a word of any of this, but things do keep disappearing, from library books to people, mostly never to be seen again. Worst of all is when the narrator's sweetheart Jake, an exceptionally bright boy who keeps getting into trouble, disappears into the bag after wresting it away from Zofia. All this is in told in the past, including stories from her grandmother which are from even further in the past, surrounding the possibly made-up country of Baldeziwurlekistan where she was born. Pop culture references intrude a couple of times, there is one 4-letter word that seems to be there only to prevent the story from being construed as just for children. But in the end, Link does a masterful job of mixing the shifts in time, and comes up with simple yet original tall tales to enliven the story, taking what could be a fairly ordinary fantasy and making it something memorable.
    'The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz' Howard Waldrop (Scifiction, 22 September)