Ordinary Monsters by JM Miro (Bloomsbury, £ 17.99)
A Mississippi boy whose wounds heal miraculously after each beating; a girl from Tokyo who entertains her sister by conjuring up clouds of dust and making them dance; a child in England who shines with a mysterious blue light: these are among the orphans whose talent has marked them for “collection” by the doctor who runs a mysterious institute on the shores of a Scottish lake. For what purpose? This, and the origins of the terrifying figures seeking to destroy “Talents,” are questions that are gradually answered in this ambitious dark fantasy, the first of a projected series. A complex, often horrifying story, told through multiple points of view and in different contexts between 1874 and 1882, is a compelling read.
In the heart of hidden things by Kit Whitfield (Jo Fletcher, £20)
Whitfield’s 2006 debut, Bareback, it was an original version of werewolves; In Great Waters, An Alternate History of Europe, he featured the merfolk. More than a decade later, his third novel draws on traditional folk tales to examine the strained relationship between humans and deceptive and dangerous beings sometimes called fairies. It is set in the fictional village of Gyrford, where generations of Smiths have served as farriers, which in this case means not just shoeing horses, but creating iron spells to protect oneself and advise on the best ways to deal with “good neighbors”. Grumpy Jedediah Smith, his powerful and sensitive son Matthew, Matthew’s beloved wife Janet, and their boyfriend, John – who bothers them all with his unorthodox behavior – are engaging and believable characters who draw us into a world of walking and ghostly brambles, fire-breathing hounds. Many fantasies focus on isolated individuals who leave their homes to seek their destiny; this is distinguished by the representation of a family deeply linked to a community, which helps those who need it most, regardless of the danger to themselves.
Andrew Hunter Murray Shrine (Hutchinson, £ 14.99)
Ben’s fiancée Cara has been away for six months to work for a wealthy philanthropist on her private island, and writes to say that she has decided not to return: “This is the most important place in the world.” Unable to reach her by phone – “The Isle of Pemberley was almost completely cut off from the world” – she embarks on an arduous journey that nearly kills him. Eventually he is offered the chance to join the enthusiastic residents of Sanctuary Rock, who have transformed it into an apparent paradise; not just a self-contained refuge for the few, he promises scientific advances that could avert global destruction. But Ben gets the feeling that a terrible secret lurks behind the idyll and sneaks in looking for clues. The novel is set in a decaying world plagued by floods and mass extinctions, where the rich live in protected villages designed by Pemberley, the man who now claims he has a plan to save the world. Ben acts like an idiot and the plot hinges on a certain amount of contrived suspense, but this is a smoothly written and inspiring tale about aging societies and wealth inequality, with a shocking effective ending.
The beautiful city by Karen Heuler (Angry Robot, £ 9.99)
Texas separated from the United States and called itself Liberty, ruled by a president who gives people what they want: daily parades, free nougat and lots of surprises. Even being approached by a big talking cat named Stan doesn’t seem too surprising to most citizens; maybe he is really a man with a strange skin disease? Eleanor, a young witch from the east, knows more about Stan’s past than she likes to admit. She was banished to Liberty and forced to share a home with this annoying creature as a penance for abusing a spell. She wishes to be one Good witch. Perhaps if she can prove her worth by helping the local coven find a missing member, she will be allowed to return home, with or without Stan. A sharp, lively and fun contemporary fantasy with the feel of an updated, more grown-up version of Oz by L Frank Baum books.
Scattered all over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani (Granta, £ 12.99)
While studying abroad, Hiruko suddenly discovers that he cannot return home, as Japan has vanished, presumably under the rising sea, although no one seems entirely safe. Unable to extend her visa, she becomes a refugee, moving from one country to another. Seeing her on TV, Danish linguistics student Knut is fascinated by Hiruko’s invented pan-Scandinavian dialect, Panska, and, because he is so attracted to her and hoping to learn more about her ability to communicate across borders, offers to help her find other surviving Japanese native speakers. They fly to Trieste where an umami festival will be held: but even the sushi chefs who look like anime heroes aren’t necessarily Japanese. Tawada writes lightly on serious matters in this magical and memorable tale.