Three years have passed since Jonathan Stroud conjured up the last instalment in his diabolically good Bartimaeus Sequence, but our wait for another ripping yarn is soon to end. I was a latecomer to Stroud’s fiction – it wasn’t until the publication of the final novel in the Bartimaeus Sequence that I stumbled across it – and I was instantly captivated by his masterful storytelling and delightful wit and above all his genius for taking desiccated conventions and breathing new life into them.
 
Kibble. A word coined by the late great Philip K. Dick to describe those useless objects which proliferate in our lives and threaten to overwhelm us over time. Kibble proliferates, it replicates, it accumulates, contributing little of value to our existence. I can think of no better word to describe the vast majority of novels that proliferate in the Fantasy genre, a genre that is endlessly replenished with derivative, unoriginal, uninspiring escapist kibble.
 
Brian J. Robb’s Steampunk: An Illustrated History of Fantastical Fiction, Fanciful Film and Other Victorian Visions is described by its publisher, Voyager Press, as “the definitive book on the writers, film-makers, artisans and aesthetes who created the extraordinary genre”. It’s a bold claim to make of a work about a literary sub-genre and cultural movement that continues to evolve and which refuses to be pinned down with any single definition, but Brian Robb’s book more than lives up to the hype.
 
Few novels in recent months have crossed my desk for review and been snatched up with as much enthusiasm as Clockwork Angels, a collaboration between legendary Canadian rock band Rush and prolific SF author Kevin J. Anderson. While novelisation’s of rock albums are few and far between – giving this project a certain fascination right off the bat – my enthusiasm was guaranteed for the reason that Anderson’s novel and the exquisite illustrations by graphic artist Hugh Syme take the lyrics and broad narrative of Rush’s latest album as their inspiration, forging a beautifully illustrated work of fiction that draws on many of the philosophical, humanitarian and libertarian ideas that lyricist Neil Peart has been working with and evolving through the band’s music over some four decades.
 
It's not often that SF and Fantasy literature gets the serious attention it deserves from critics and the academies of higher learning, and what attention has been received over the years has tended to dismiss it for a failure to address reality, for being concerned with plot over character, and for any number of other reasons that contrast it unfavourably with realist fiction. Such criticisms are of course true about some SF and Fantasy fiction and patently untrue about much of the rest. But even when these charges are true, they can be virtues in the best literature that these genres have to offer as authors pursue certain kinds of exploration and investigation that are simply not possible within the constraints of realist fiction.
 
If you’re familiar with Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy, you might be wondering why we’ve chosen to take a look at the first novel, The Amulet of Samarkand, some eight years after it was published. Our only defence is “better late than never”. The trilogy and its prequel, The Ring of Solomon, slipped under our radar until recently, in part perhaps because it’s outwardly young adult fiction and it’s been awhile since any of us at SFW could claim to be a young adult. As it turns out, Stroud’s writing is at least as much a delight for adults as it is for its younger audience, which is often the case with the best YA fiction: there is a wit and easy sophistication to the writing which might be missed by a younger readership but which delighted this older reader. So this review is for those who have not yet had the pleasure of Jonathan Stroud’s beautifully written, frequently witty tale about a 5000 year old djinni, Bartimaeus, and his precocious but impetuous master, Nathaniel, a boy magician growing up in a vaguely familiar Britain.
 
Dan Simmons’ latest novel, Flashback (July 2011), is “[a] provocative novel set in a future that seems scarily possible,” proving “why Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers." So says the publicist anyway. Dan Simmons is one of our most exciting and versatile writers, but sadly Flashback doesn’t prove that. And yes, Flashback is a provocative novel, but it doesn’t provoke because the dystopian future Simmons describes is "scarily possible", but because it expresses a political bias that renders much of this novel little more than propaganda for the Right side of politics.
 
The Orion Publishing Group has announced that the third edition of the essential science fiction reference work, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, will be released online in 2012 and will be completely free. This is a gigantic work (overwhelming in a good way) and will undoubtedly be a fascinating reference point to explore online. If you want to know more about science fiction, there's enough information in the original volumes to keep you intrigued for a millennia. This is great news for science fiction scholars and fans alike.
 
Over the years we’ve received a lot of novels for review, and it’ll probably come as no surprise that many of them are for first time authors seeking some hard earned exposure. That’s something we can sympathise with and we do our best to read what is sent to us, but more often than not we find ourselves cutting our loses after a few pages, in some cases a few paragraphs, and very occasionally after the first sentence.
 
The Lament of the Stone, the third and final chapter in Dora Machado’s refreshingly original Stonewiser series, will be available from 28 February 2011. We’ve followed the development of this fantasy series with great interest since the first novel, The Heart of the Stone, landed on our desk for review back in 2008.  It's not often that a debut novel grabs our attention as fully as this one did, and it's been  particularly satisfying to watch the first and second novels garner praise and a number of awards, including the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Award for best Debut Novel.