When, in its early passages set in Victorian England, a novel refers to a “freight train” with a “wagon”, describes Leicester as being “to the north”, and places Bermondsey next to Battersea Park, the reader can be forgiven a grimace. Here, it seems, is an author who hasn’t quite done his homework.
The author in question is JM Miro, pseudonym of the Canadian writer Steven Price, and his Ordinary monsters (Bloomsbury, £16.99) hits a few notes like these throughout. That caveat aside, it’s a gripping piece of Gothic and Dickensian fantasy, centering on children with magical powers, or “talents,” who are offered sanctuary and training in a place called the Cairndale Institute. just outside Edinburgh. Two of these youngsters, mixed-race American orphan Charlie, who can heal himself, and British foundling Marlowe, who can heal others, are pursued by the villainous Jacob Marber, who appears to be made of smoke. A plot is underway to break down the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead, promising predictable disastrous consequences.
Through its almost 700 pages, the novel, first of a trilogy, visits the United States, Tokyo and Vienna as well as the United Kingdom. In its basic conceit it bears the traces of countless paranormal children’s school fictions – x-men, Nevers, The Umbrella Academy, Harry Potter — but Miro’s meaty, detailed execution lends weight and depth to his story and inspires respect.
Speaking of great, Penguin Classics has released three collections of Marvel Comics titles from the 1960s and 1970s, available in both paperback and a handsome hardback edition with foil-edged pages (£25 and £40 respectively). The adventures of the web-slinging protagonist in The Amazing Spider-Man highlighting writer Stan Lee’s innovative “clay-footed superhero” approach and artist Steve Ditko’s angular, eerie aesthetic.
With Captain America, also written by Lee, we are on more conventional ground. The hard-hitting patriotism of the main character may not have aged well, but the work of frequent Lee collaborator Jack Kirby has a timeless vibrancy. To finish, Black Panther features Marvel’s first major black character in a storyline, “Panther’s Rage”, which at the time was considered to have brought new maturity to a genre widely considered juvenile, although Don McGregor’s dialogue and captions seem desperate overworked. On the other hand, the muscular illustration and the inventive composition of Billy Graham still hold their own. Each volume benefits from specially commissioned texts, including helpful contextual analysis by Ben Saunders, British-born professor of comics studies at the University of Oregon, and each features a medium as it came all just to bloom.
The Last Cry of Twilight (Black Shuck Books, £30) by Sean Hogan focuses on another medium, cinema, in particular horror films. It is a sequel to The cries of England (2020) and replicates this book’s format of a series of vignettes, each of which takes a character from a single film and extrapolates a new story around them; these stories, cumulatively, tell a larger story, in this case a power struggle being played out at the highest levels of the US government, over apocalyptic stakes.
By turning his attention from the UK to the US, Hogan has given himself a wider canvas to work on, and the novel is, as a result, much longer than its predecessor. There’s the same ingenuity, though, the same deft blend of strong writing and filmmaker nerdiness, and the same understanding that the silver screen is a mirror of a nation’s subconscious and, in its darkest moments, reflects the fear and paranoia lurking in our collective soul.
Another sequel, or at least a sequel by another hand, appeared last year in the form of the excellent JS Barnes The City of Dr. Moreau. Now Silvia Moreno-Garcia has approached the same source material, HG Wells’ 1896 SF classic The island of Dr. Moreau, reinventing it from scratch. In The daughter of Doctor Moreau (Quercus, £16.99) The action is transplanted from the South Pacific to the Yucatán Peninsula in the 19th century, with caste warfare between Mayans and Mexicans rumbling in the background.
Carlota Moreau lives in the jungle of her scientist father, who raises human-animal hybrids to work as slaves. When his boss’s haughty son, Eduardo, arrives, a love triangle develops between him, Carlota, and Montgomery Laughton, Moreau’s moody English butler, and the precarious balance of the household is upset. A somewhat telegraphed twist looms, but it’s nonetheless an evocative, slow-burning SF drama about colonialism, heredity, and scientific hubris, written in lush prose.
In contrast, DD Johnston Disneyland (Barbican Press, £18.99), a comedic dystopia set in a small Scottish town, is all profanity and colloquialism. When civilization collapses, a community struggles to unite and rebuild. Bringing light to a dark world is no mean feat, but the characters in the novel do it, and so does the author. From the cunning pun of its title, Disneyland is a scabrous treat.
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