A truly stunning debut novel, Liminal States is a bleak ride through three eras in an alternate America: the Old West, 50's LA and a relatively near future US. Parsons' tale follows the fantastic story of two old rivals who stumble upon a fountain of eternal youth which has the unexpected consequence of cloning them at random intervals. The two protagonists battle through the ages, forming and breaking alliances and struggling to keep a handle on their ever-increasing numbers.
The entirely different moods and styles employed in the three sections – interspersed with trips to a bizarre Lovecraftian realm – helps to lend a cinematic feel to the book. The desert scenes are open, barren and brooding, the 50's infused with the essence of pulp detective novels and the future simply bleak and despairing. This was certainly one of the best surprises I've had in a long time.
In a far lighter vein than Liminal States – in fact with a positively mischievous spirit – Robin Sloan's debut takes on an unlikely yet engrossing journey through the history of publishing, typesetting and technology. Unemployed tech wizard Clay Jannon finds himself working the graveyard shift at a mysterious San Francisco bookstore, little suspecting that he'll soon be neck-deep in a quest for the secrets of immortality. Bookended by the invention of movable print and the modern culmination of the publishing industry, Google Inc., Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is brimming with ideas yet remains light enough so as not to smother the reader. Fans of books, technology, problem solving and general nerd lore will find plenty to amuse themselves here.
Devil Said Bang – Richard Kadrey
This is the fourth installment in the Sandman Slim series which I have been promising to review for these pages since Splendibird first invited me. A quick recap: James Stark was a promising young magician (real, not like Copperfield) who was betrayed by his magic circle and sent to Hell, where he scraped by fighting Hellions and damned souls alike in the arenas. Here he discovered a mysterious ability to heal his wounds and forever remain utterly invulnerable to similar injuries and eventually escaped back to earth to hunt down those who sent him there. Cue battles against powerful sorcerers, demented angels, legions of zombies, the terrifying Kissi (God's first mistake), discovering his rather unfortunate parentage and, of course, orchestrating a new battle between the legions of Heaven and Hell.
Devil Said Bang sees Stark/Slim stuck downstairs once again and left in charge of rebuilding a new Hell (did you know that Lucifer was a position, not a guy?) and the eternal committee meetings which accompany said task. Sadly, some of the netherworld's generals are less than happy with the arrangement. Time for another escape to LA and yet more supernatural carnage. The Sandman Slim books read like Dashiell Hammett after watching a horror marathon, dripping with sarcasm, self-deprecating humour and sizzling dialogue which would make Tarantino jealous. Fun :)
The Apocalypse Codex – Charles Stross
Another 'number four in the series', The Apocalypse Codex marks Edinburgh-based Stross's return to his Laundry Files series of adventures. For the uninitiated, The Laundry is a super-secret division of the British Secret Service, dedicated to defending the realm from, erm, multi-tentacled Elder Gods from hideous unknown dimensions. Our hero, Bob Howard, was a computer nerd who came within a hair's breadth of levelling Wolverhampton through some coding which happened to be the occult equivalent of a nuclear bomb. The Laundry bailed him out and have now recruited him as a kind of hapless James Bond, battling Cthulhu instead of Blofeld.
In this latest instalment, our hero is paired with the wonderfully named Persephone Hazard (aka 'Duchess') to investigate an American religious leader who has taken an unhealthy interest in the PM. Of course things go far from smoothly and his very soul is soon in peril yet again. Stross seems more at ease with this series now and it is maturing from silly, tongue-in-cheek nonsense to solid stories which stand well on their own merit.
The Weird – Ann and Jeff Vandermeer
Okay, this one is kind of a cheat. Yes it was published this year but it is a compendium of strange short fiction culled from the past couple of centuries. This collection is simply wonderful, containing offerings from Lovecraft, Ellison, Chabon, Mieville, Gaiman, Murakami and countless others – 110 tales in all, mostly unclassifiable. All share one thing in common, a creeping sense of unease which envelopes you like a cold, wet tentacle. Highlights? Lovecraft's classic The Dunwich Horror and Harlan Ellison's claustrophobic technological nightmare I Have No Mouth Yet I Must Scream.
And there you have it. Honourable mention goes to Daniel Wilson's Amped, soon to be reviewed here and to those I have not yet finished yet which would by all accounts have made this list, particularly Ken MacLeod's Intrusion, Peter Heller's The Dog Stars and Daniel O'Malley's The Rook.
There you have it, indeed. We have, several times, considered asking Cannonball to stop reviewing for The Mountains of Instead as it's costing us a fortune in books but everything he reads and reviews is just so damn good he is to stay. Stop by tomorrow for PolkaDot Steph's pick of 2012.