The present panorama of speculative fiction is teeming with astounding improvements and lavish spectacles — from the lesbian necromancers of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb books to the world-shaking energy dynamics of N. Ok. Jemisin’s Damaged Earth trilogy. Within the midst of all that genre-expanding sprawl, nevertheless, there’s nonetheless room for brief, humble, understated works.
Eddie Robson’s new novel, Hearts of Oak, is strictly such a narrative. Temporary in page-count and quiet in voice, the guide is a gleaming gem of offbeat weirdness and oddball humor, a piece that blends fantasy and science fiction extra cleverly than nearly something in latest reminiscence. However beneath that quirky whimsicality beats a deeply considerate, even melancholy pulse.
So how precisely does Hearts of Oak mix fantasy and science fiction? That is a tough query to reply — not as a result of Robson does not execute this mix brilliantly, however as a result of explaining this mix is, in and of itself, a serious spoiler. This is what it is secure to say: The guide takes place in an unnamed metropolis, one constructed principally of wooden, that feels vaguely acquainted and considerably fairytale-esque, however is unimaginable to put.
Town has a king. The King talks to a cat. The cat talks again. In actual fact, Clarence the cat is the King’s closest advisor, and their exchanges are the stuff of Monty Python absurdity and satire, an prolonged riff on the petulance and ineffectiveness of our chosen leaders that is extra acidic than most overtly political novels being written at present. The King is obsessive about establishing extra buildings and rising his metropolis’s measurement, a unending course of that consumes the town’s labor and sources.
Caught up in that obsession is the second essential character of Hearts of Oak, Iona Taylor. Iona is without doubt one of the metropolis’s oldest and most revered architects. She battles always with the illogic of paperwork, a lot of which stems from the King’s infantile whims. She does not assume she’s ever met the King, however she’s undecided; she’s been alive for thus lengthy, and her reminiscence has grown so hazy that she’s not even certain what buildings within the metropolis she’s designed.
Her confusion is not helped by the truth that Iona has begun listening to phrases that do not exist in her language, however that she appears to mysteriously perceive: phrases like “concrete,” “cash,” and “electrical energy.” When a hearth breaks out on a development web site — one thing that by no means occurs within the surreally idyllic metropolis — the following tragedy thrusts each Iona and the King into unchartered territories of thriller, reminiscence, and the very nature of their weird actuality.
Robson is a beforehand printed novelist, however his major background is in different media: tv, podcasts, comics, and radio, most notably the BBC radio sitcom Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Rigorously in addition to official audio episodes and comedian strips for the Physician Who franchise. He is used to writing concisely and effectively, with a robust emphasis on dialogue. These abilities shine in Hearts of Oak. The guide packs in oodles of dry wit and droll self-mockery, the form of profound and lacerating laughter that Robson’s countrymen Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett perfected. On the similar time, there is a poignant sincerity to Iona’s battle to know herself and her world — and even to the King’s inept, quixotic quest to construct the most important metropolis in a world the place, apparently, there aren’t even every other cities.
It is common for a piece of fantasy and/or science fiction to plant an enormous revelation on the reader midway by, one thing that challenges the protagonist’s understanding of themself or what they imagine to be actual. However the shift that Robson drops in the course of Hearts of Oak is seismic. In a way, it appears like two very completely different novel-fragments glued collectively, with a pivot between them that is downright mind-blowing.
It is a testomony to Robson’s swift storytelling, endearing characters, and deftly managed world-building that the guide not solely works on each ends however succeeds wildly. Are we the shapers or the merchandise of our environment? Is society a mechanical equipment or an natural one? Can a speaking cat ever get a break? Robson satisfyingly stirs up a whole trilogy’s value of wacky and clever philosophy within the span of a pair hundred pages. Hearts of Oak could also be small in stature, nevertheless it packs a fats, speculative wallop.
Jason Heller is a Hugo Award-winning editor and writer of the brand new guide Unusual Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded. He is on Twitter: @jason_m_heller