The Inferior - Peadar O Guilin
The cover of The Inferior suggests barbarian-based fantasy, but the story is solid sci-fi. In the vein of Brian Aldiss classics like Non-Stop, much of the fun comes from working out the bounds and the rules of the alien environment through which our protagonists are struggling. And struggling they certainly are here - a small community of humans lives virtually on the verge of extinction in a ruined city, surrounded on all sides by vicious alien races, all of whom have to kill and eat each other to survive. Ritualised cannibalism is the norm; for those too old or too slow to hunt, their only contribution to the tribe is from inside the cooking pot - protein is too scarce to waste in burials or cremation. None of these species are able to communicate with each other, making collaboration impossible, so when it's discovered that two enemy species are co-ordinating their attacks, the community knows it's in real trouble.
The hero of the piece is Stopmouth, an adolescent boy with a stammer; he's not a mighty hunter, but can bring in enough game to save himself from the pot. His older brother is a much more respected warrior and tactician, who soon becomes leader of the tribe, but a wedge is driven between them when a mysterious woman falls from the Roof, offering hints of a whole new world above. Eventually, Stopmouth is forced to flee across alien territories, and gradually discovers the true nature of the world he inhabits.
The age of the protagonist and the simple style (think JK Rowling) have seen this book pitched mostly at a Young Adult audience, but there are enough delightfully gruesome details to satisfy a bloodthirsty horror-reading adult, too. The various alien races are all full of inventive nastiness, and it's an interesting exploration of the ethics and mechanics of survival in some very adverse circumstances. This is very reminiscent of old-school sci-fi, down to the mild but unfortunate sexism, so there's nothing particularly ground-breaking about the book, but the story is very entertaining, the world compelling and unusual, and it's certainly worth a read. Unless you're particularly squeamish about cannibals...