...Caution: Contains Small Parts by Kirstyn McDermott | Twelfth Planet Press Review by Jack Reed The supernatural lurks in the shadows of Kirstyn McDermott's first collection, an ambiguous or mundane presence that keeps these four quasi-horror stories feeling palpably real. They're not all bracingly original, but McDermott's intimate prose makes each story so moving and psychologically rich that it doesn't matter. Each protagonist is haunted in some way. In the first story, a crisis counsellor investigates the background of a client who won't explain her unhappiness. Their story is intercut with confronting mini-narratives about seemingly unrelated traumas. As their relevance becomes clear, McDermott delves powerfully into privileged assumptions that suffering gives life meaning.
‘Horn’ is less successful, a common meta-scenario of a bestselling fantasy writer whose success has been eclipsed by tragedy. But the gentle, oozing horror that recurs throughout Caution compensates for it, as does the creative sprinkling of interviews, novel excerpts, and fan letters to illustrate how perfunctory the writer’s achievements have become for him.
The third story is also conventional, but McDermott imbues all four with compelling melancholy. A strange toy dog creepily keeps appearing at the protagonist’s house, and his investigation snowballs into a provocative but heartbreaking glimpse into a life not lived.
The final story subverts any preconceptions about a story involving sex dolls. Rather than being about a doll owner, it follows the reclusive Jane, who rescues and restores damaged dolls. McDermott uses the twist to explore trauma and sexual disempowerment. She also vividly presents the story’s supernatural elements but never confirms whether they’re genuine, reinforcing how imagination can help us survive and cope with the most real of horrors.
McDermott’s poignant stories defy genre labelling, being primarily about damaged people seeking solace, escape, or meaning. The otherworldly merely gives them a chance to find it, and makes these unflinching but touching stories even more evocative and irresistible.
Review by Ivan Smith
The year is 2159; Earth is a very different place. Human society has survived a massive collapse, and moves forward boldly, with little regard for the past. In the midst of this new world of weather-controlled farms and great domed cities, a small portion of the global population have been found to possess either telepathic or telekinetic powers. The threat that ‘psis’ pose to society at large raises a fierce debate about integration vs. segregation. Into this highly charged atmosphere comes Pierre, a very special and dangerous child.
The characters move through this story’s many twists and turns at a cracking pace, and the moral undertone is clear, but not overstated. Avid science fiction readers will not find the concepts particularly original, and fans of hard sci-fi writers such as Gibson or Asimov might find it a little light on the science. A few more technical details would go a long way towards making the world seem plausible. On the other hand, the technology is imaginative and the political structures are interesting. The choice to just portray the concepts, rather than explain how they work, may detract something, but it does stop the story from getting bogged down. Henley manages to pack in heaps of action and surprises, while showing insight into issues that are definitely relevant to today’s world. All in all, a fun read.
Review by Deanne Sheldon-Collins
In S M Wheeler’s debut novel, a stag tells the protagonist, ‘Your past is a tangle.’ Sea Change, the story of that past and what follows, is indeed a tangle—twisted, complex, but worth the concentration required to unknot it.
Sea Change hails the mythic tradition: young Lilly sets off on a quest, to succeed in which she must complete trials and make sacrifices. Legendary creatures, magic, and impossible tasks are everyday occurrences—looked at askance, but tolerated without surprise.
As in myth, Lilly’s real quest is her psychological journey. The ‘sea change’ that displaces her is not her shift from seaside to mountains but her transformation of body and identity. As gender and sexuality become unstable concepts, Lilly considers them through the lens of friendship. ‘Intimacy is not sensuality,’ she declares. ‘I am devoted, and at this moment intimacy is valued more in my heart than sensuality.’
Lilly tends not to shy away from truths; she concedes her desires, but refuses to succumb to anything that will compromise her goals. Her terrible sacrifices become almost too much to read about, but her stoic endurance makes her likeable.
The story drags a little when Lilly spends months with two bandits for one of her tasks, but more disappointing is the end. The novel closes on a poignant note, mixing loss and hope, but too abruptly. Untangling a knot may result in loose ends, but that does not make the emotional void and hanging questions of the novel’s final pages any less frustrating.
If the end is lacking, the journey is still worth taking. Sea Change is a gothic, bloody fairytale, rooted in simplistic but deep and disturbing symbolism. Its characters are complex, their relationships heartfelt but twisted. For a surreal take on familiar myths, enjoy a sea change.
Review by Deanne Sheldon-Collins
Not yet released, The Bone Season has already been sold to international publishers and translated into over a dozen languages. Social media sings its praises and a film adaptation is in the works. If the marketing is to be believed, Samantha Shannon’s debut novel is special. But is the hype justified?
Whether or not the novel will become an enduring hit depends on readers, but The Bone Season is a tense, well-written urban fantasy. A first-person narrative hovering between young adult and adult, it follows Paige, a teenage criminal whose clairvoyance connects her to restless spirits, dream hacking, and mysticism in future England.
The first in a planned series of seven books, The Bone Season establishes a detailed world. The opening is not gripping, but introductory exposition gives way to well- paced action and a story with powerful emotional stakes. Shifting from a London where the government hunts clairvoyants to a secret Oxford where immortals enslave clairvoyants and normal people alike, the novel highlights how fluid power is—and how dangerous in the hands of egotists. Yet not all immortals are cruel, as Paige gradually discovers through a battle of wills with her ‘keeper’, Warden. Their relationship drives the story without overwhelming it, and their chemistry promises future conflict and character development.
Comparisons will inevitably arise between The Bone Season and Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, and fans of one probably will enjoy the other. Each depicts— through the eyes of a tough young woman torn from her home—a dystopia where minorities fight suppression. The Bone Season’s paranormal bent, however, makes it a very different story of survival and revolution.
This novel is dark but readable, complex but not convoluted. Maintaining such a tight plot and interesting characters over seven books may prove a challenge, but Shannon has created a compelling beginning.
Review by Alex Stevenson
Amanda Bridgeman’s debut novel, Aurora: Darwin, is an engaging science fiction thriller. Although it occasionally struggles under the weight of its own ambition, it ultimately satisfies, supplying all the adrenaline, shock, and gore that fans of the genre could ask for.
The action focuses on Captain Saul Harris of the UNF Aurora and his team of misfit commandos, recalled from leave to investigate a distress call from a classified research station situated near Mars. When, at the last minute, Harris is ordered to accept three female recruits into his all-male crew (a first for a UNF space mission), it is obvious that this rescue operation is more than it seems.
Despite the engaging premise, the action is somewhat slow to get underway, and a good third of the novel is spent on board the Aurora developing the relationships between the crew members, while the plot slowly gathers speed. Fortunately, Bridgeman understands her craft, and her characters, though a tad archetypal for the genre, are enjoyably written and genuinely likeable.
This extra effort paid to characterisation pays off when the action finally does start, and each scene is all the more gripping for the lack of throwaway grunts. Bridgeman does not just build up her characters, but punishes them, and the thrills are all the more visceral for that.
Aurora: Darwin is an excellent debut for Bridgeman, and despite its shortcomings, shows remarkable promise.
Review by Alex Stevenson
Timesplash, Graham Storrs’s new novel, is a cleverly thought out sci-fi thriller, combining shocks, laughs, and romance into an eminently readable package.
Set in the year 2047, Timesplash follows Jay and Sandra, an unlikely pairing of raver-turned-cop and escaped psychiatric patient, as they attempt to foil a terrorist sponsored ‘timesplash’, a hugely destructive temporal backwash, caused when time travellers cause havoc in the past and send rupturing shockwaves through the present. With only a few squabbling government agencies equipped to combat the threat, our protagonists find themselves on their own, and it comes down to them to stop the splash before it’s too late.
Timesplash interweaves sci-fi, rave culture, and international terrorism to great effect, and Storrs has realised his time-travel technology in an elegant and intelligent manner. Timesplash quite gratifyingly lacks the sort of deus ex machina moments and needlessly complicated metaphysical jams that normally mar time-travel fiction. It is a pleasure to see Storrs using the trope to enhance his story without letting the plot become confused.
Time travel aside, the definite star of the book is the characterisation. The dialogue crackles between protagonists, and the villain, Sniper, radiates menace through his every scene. His palpable rage adds urgency to the narrative and his over-the-top violence adds a grittiness that both cuts through and creates humour. Even minor characters are well written and believable. Storrs is to be commended for the life he has breathed into the text.
The first of a new series, Timesplash is an exciting beginning, and definitely worth looking out for.