The best recent science fiction and fantasy – reviews roundup

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Kathy Burns/Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Kathy Burns/Alamy Stock Photo

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon (#Merky, £12.99) is an exhilarating journey to the outer limits of science fiction, steeped in the southern gothic tradition and grounded in the physical and social realities of being poor, powerless, black and female in America. It begins with teenage Vern giving birth alone in the woods to twins she names Howling and Feral. She has escaped from Cainland, a religious compound ostensibly set up to allow black people to live free from white oppression, but with strict rules that make it a prison. She is determined her children will grow up truly free. Their life in the woods is hard, but also idyllic – unfeasibly so, but there’s a reason for that, revealed when she makes an impossible escape from an armed stalker, and realises that her body is in a process of transformation. She is becoming superhumanly strong and quick, but there are other changes, physical and mental, which frighten her into returning to civilisation to search for answers and find safety for her babies. After many struggles, she uncovers the terrible truth behind Cainland. A furious, justified anger drives this novel, drawing on the US history of racial oppression, but it’s also joyful and wildly entertaining.

Recent reports on declining sperm counts suggest that by 2045, most people wanting children will have to rely on assisted reproduction. Polly Ho-Yen’s Dark Lullaby (Titan, £8.99) imagines how this might change society. In her near-future Britain, no one is forced to undergo repeated rounds of painful fertility treatments, but women of childbearing age are under constant social and financial pressures to try. Because babies are so rare and precious, they are monitored by the “Office of Standards in Parenting”, and parents who prove less than perfect may have their child taken away. The cover references The Handmaid’s Tale, but the book has more in common with Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four; extrapolating from current trends in our surveillance society, it’s horrifyingly plausible.

Would you get a brain implant to help you multitask? What about one for your child, to help them do better at school? In Sarah Pinsker’s We Are Satellites (Head of Zeus, £18.99), these questions are explored through the experiences of one loving yet conflicted American family. After teenage David gets the “Pilot” implant he wants so desperately, his grades improve, but he finds it hard to cope with the increased influx of sensory impressions – although doctors insist nothing is wrong. His sister Sophie has epilepsy, which rules the implant out, but having a Pilot quickly becomes near-mandatory for most jobs and she joins an anti-Pilot movement demanding accountability from the manufacturer. This is science fiction as domestic slice of life; a gripping, believable immersion in the day after tomorrow.

The Kingdoms by The Watchmaker of Filigree Street author Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury, £14.99) begins 90-odd years after the British were defeated at Trafalgar; Londres is an outpost of the French empire. As the novel opens, Joe Tournier steps off a train in the “Gare du Roi”, with no idea of who he is. Attacks of amnesia are well known in this world, and usually brief; but, although he is quickly returned to his home and family, Joe never regains his memory, and remains haunted by a sense of loss, which is only assuaged by love for a new baby daughter. Then he’s transported abruptly back to 1807 as the prisoner of a ragtag remnant of the British navy, who hope his knowledge of future technology will allow them to defeat the French. But Joe fears that if he changes history, his beloved daughter may never exist. Is it wrong of him to care more about one child than the fate of a whole country? Meanwhile, he is attracted to his captor, Missouri Kite, an unlikely character who combines a sensitive nature with casual brutality. Bromance simmers, always thwarted by a lack of honest conversation, and multiple flashbacks to earlier years can make it hard to follow the complicated story. Pulley is an inventive writer, and there is much to enjoy, but eventually my suspension of disbelief collapsed beneath the many contrivances.

The Cottingley Cuckoo by AJ Elwood (Titan, £8.99) references the famous Cottingley fairies hoax of a hundred years ago, but instead of pretty little people with gauzy wings, these fairies are the dangerous, spiteful creatures of folklore. In the present day, Rose works in a care home, where one of the residents, Charlotte Favell, shows her letters written in 1921 by a man who claimed to have found a dead fairy, and photographed others. Rose is too intimidated to ask questions, but Charlotte seems able to read her mind, and tells Rose she is pregnant before she knows herself. Rose becomes obsessed with this mysterious old woman, and with fairy lore, increasingly worried that her own baby has been replaced by a changeling. Unease escalates into dread in a very accomplished blend of dark fantasy and psychological thriller.