An increasing trend in fantasy fiction is to set stories in a society that’s on the cusp of capitalism, as industrial revolution begins to replace an old ruling class with a new.
As we know from our own history, the new bosses, lacking genealogy, must legitimise themselves through culture and theology — and through grandiose achievements.
Such a family, of siblings born into the merchant and manufacturer stratum, is at the centre of The Iron Ship by KM McKinley (Solaris, £7.99).
The spine of this impressive first novel is the struggle to build a new kind of vessel, capable of crossing previously uncharted seas.
Around it are themes of magic and monsters, feminism and slavery, expansionism and reaction.
This subgenre, which we could call “materialist fantasy,” is clearly an attempt to write a kind of magical fiction that’s more rooted than usual in universal realities of economics and class struggle.
McKinley is an exciting new writer who’s come up with something fresh and compelling, even though she’s crammed a little too much into this opening episode of her series for complete comfort.
In 1950s New York, a lonely young girl is tricked into visiting her mysterious neighbour, Miss Hatfield. By the time she leaves her life has been irreversibly altered, and she herself has become The Seventh Miss Hatfield in the novel of the same name by Anna Caltabiano (Gollancz, £8.99).
Now a young woman with a mission to perform, she finds herself mixing with the New York posh at the turn of the 20th century — and, disastrously, falling in love.
Essentially a romance, with elements of both fantasy and science-fiction, this book was written by a teenager and, to be blunt, you’d know that from reading just a few pages.
To some readers this relative lack of writerly sophistication will be off-putting, but others will applaud a developing author for choosing a story which perfectly fits her current style to create a charming and offbeat tale.
Tales from the Vatican Vaults, edited by David V Barrett (Robinson, £9.99), must feature the most bizarrely obscure concept for a collection of alternative history short stories ever devised.
The idea is that Pope John Paul I didn’t die suddenly after a month in office, but survived to become a radical reformer.
His greatest anti-establishment act was opening the notorious secret archives of the Vatican to historians — and this volume presents a selection of the aliens, time-travellers and magicians hidden within.
Bizarre or not, it’s a fascinating anthology of Forteana. Not one of the 28 stories is a dud and several are excellent.
Lovers of “hard SF” needn’t feel left out this month. Alex Lamb’s Roboteer (Gollancz, £14.99) is full-blooded space opera, in which religious fundamentalist Earthers battle against their own colonists, who they damn for technologically and genetically modifying their bodies.
Exceptionally promising, this debut novel contains some of the best-written and most convincing imagining of war in space that I’ve ever read.