Cover reveal and exclusive excerpt: When The Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson

Solaris are delighted to share the UK cover for When the Sparrow Falls by Neil Sharpson.

Part Cold War spy thriller, part literary science fiction, When the Sparrow Falls is a unique melding of genres, and an exploration of the coming AI revolution, transhumanism, totalitarianism, loss, and the problem of evil.

Cover design by Matt Needle

Author Neil Sharpson on the cover:

“One of the hardest parts of this publishing journey was having to decide which of Matt Needle’s three truly gorgeous concepts to use for the UK edition of When the Sparrow Falls. All three were fantastic in different ways but I think we made the right choice. This cover, as well as being immediately and irresistibly striking, incorporates so many of the book’s ideas and themes into a single, unified, deceptively simple image. It’s magnificent.”

Not only do we have the dynamic cover to share with you but you can also read an exclusive excerpt below:

The man from ParSec smiled at me. I think it was supposed to be reassuring.

“Nippy out,” he noted.

The cold had been painted thickly onto my bones. I nodded. He was wearing a thick, waterproof coat that must have cost him what I made in four months.

“I took the last of your coffee,” he said. “Hope you don’t mind?”

The first few minutes would simply be him establishing dominance. I waited patiently for him to get to the point. I wondered which dagger hanging over me was about to fall. Smolna? Lily Xirau? It might even be the fact that I hadn’t reported the graffiti. Did it matter?

“Do you remember me, Brother?” he asked.

As my eyes adapted to the gloom I could make out his features. A name surfaced in my mind.

“Laddi Chernov,” I said. “Yes. I remember you.”

He had been StaSec once. I had had the distinctly unpleasant task of training him in when he had first joined. So this is where he had ended up. I was not in the least surprised that he had been headhunted by ParSec and I can think of no worse insult than that.

“Well, how’ve you been? Still with Grier?”

There had always been something so indescribably false about Chernov’s small talk, I remembered. He was like a burglar making polite conversation with a shopkeeper as he made mental notes of all the entrances and the location of the cash register.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Really. It’s been what, six years?”

“Yes. I didn’t know you’d joined ParSec?”

“What makes you think I’ve joined ParSec?”

“You’re in my home. At night. Uninvited.”

Chernov laughed quietly and nodded.

“Yes, you’ve got me. Jumped the pond. Sold out. Betrayed the Agency. Became just another Bureau thug. That’s me.”

“You always did have ambition,” I said, and I tried to make it sound complimentary.

“Well, ambition will only get you so far,” said Chernov. “Do you know what will get you far, South?”

“Loyalty?” I asked. Well, what else would you say to ParSec?

“I made the same mistake. No,” said Chernov, taking a sip from my coffee. “Luck, South. Luck is all you need. Luck, and nothing else. Let me give you an example. On my first week of field duty I took part in a surprise raid on some party wallah that we had reason to believe was defecting to Persia. So we break into his house and find that Bellov’s already done a runner.”

“Sebastien Bellov?” I asked. I vaguely remembered the name. The deputy leader of the party’s Ellulgrad branch who had disappeared five years ago.

Chernov stopped, and looked at me sheepishly.

“Shit,” he said. “I shouldn’t have told you his name, should I? ”

I suddenly remembered what I had disliked about Chernov when I had worked with him. Not simply that he was cruel, or that he was so stuffed with party dogma that his brain was a rigid, impenetrable mass. It was that he was gallingly, maddeningly stupid.

“No,” I said, in answer to his question.

“Well, anyway,” said Chernov, completely unfazed, “Bellov was gone and we were tearing the place apart looking for some clue as to where he’d slithered off to when there’s a ring at the door. And the agent in charge says ‘See who it is, Chernov. Bring him in. Kick him in the bollocks and see if he knows where Bellov’s gone.’”

Devilishly cunning, these ParSec fellows. Skilled and subtle as surgeons.

“So, hand on my gun and heart in my mouth I open the door,” Chernov continued. “And standing without is a little Ajay man . . .”

“Ajay.” The Azerbaijani. You may have heard of them. They had a country once. They’d mostly moved west but there were still a few of them in Ellulgrad, scraping by.

“A midget. Three foot tall. Ninety years old if he was a day,” said Chernov. “And he’s carrying this tray of little ceramic figurines. Hideous little things. And he’s selling them door to door. You’ve seen them?”

The Azerbaijani peddlers. Yes. I’d seen them. You would open the door and they would give you the biggest smile you’d ever seen. Hello sir, good day sir, you buy, you buy? They all had smile lines around their mouths, and none around their eyes.

And I knew the figurines so well I could picture them in my mind. Little ceramic representations of the zodiac. They could be found in half the homes in the city, iconic examples of a very specific type of Ellulgrad kitsch.

“But on his face,” Chernov continued. “On his face, South. A tumor, the size of a baby.”

He put a cupped hand by his cheek to show the size.

“I mean, can you imagine? Being confronted by this freak show in the dead of night? And I was so startled that I inadvertently shot him in the face.”

Chernov chuckled to himself like a best man cracking up in the middle of telling an amusing anecdote about the groom, while I sat across from him, trying to keep my face from betraying my fear, loathing and disgust.

“Killed him outright, obviously,” Chernov went on. “So of course, I’m slapped in handcuffs, carted away to a cell. Interrogated eight times, and those bastards were not gentle, let me tell you. That’s what we are after all. Bastards. That’s what you call us, isn’t it?”

He was still laughing, but the laugh was going sour, now. Becoming something wounded and raw. His face was so happy, but his body was hunched and his fingers clenched.

Chernov was ParSec. That was reason enough to pity him, as well as hate him.

He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“And then after three days, they let me go,” he said, “and tell me I’ve been promoted.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why, he asks me, and I shall tell him why,” said Chernov. “Because, through sheer luck, through a million-to-one chance, that old man whose brains I blasted all over Bellov’s doormat just so happened to be the ringleader of one of the largest contran operations in the city. I’m absolutely serious. He was a genius! An Azerbaijani. Midget. Genius.”

Professional curiosity got the better of me.

“How did he do it?” I asked.

“He carried all the equipment around with him. State of the art stuff strapped to his body under his coat. And he’d go to peoples’ houses, download their consciousnesses into a chip. Leave the bodies behind and smuggle the chips out of the country. They reckon he got hundreds of people out that way.”

“What way?” I asked.

Chernov looked confused. “How do you mean?”

“How did he get the chips out of the country?”

“I don’t know. The Persians probably.”

There, at least, was something StaSec and ParSec were in agreement on: When you don’t know the answer, blame the Persians.

I nodded, realization dawning.

“And that’s why he was there. For Bellov. To help him escape.”

“But Bellov got wind of the raid and never bothered to warn him,” said Chernov, nodding. “And if I hadn’t shot him by accident we never would have caught him. And a great enemy of the state would have slipped right through our fingers. Do you see the motto of the story, South?”

I did, and it was Always walk behind Chernov.

“Luck,” I said.

“Luck,” Chernov echoed. “It all comes down to luck. Now you, I believe you have just become a very lucky man, South.”

If this was luck, God protect us and keep us from misfortune.

When the Sparrow Falls is available in the UK in eBook, paperback, and audiobook July 8th 2021. Pre-order your copy now!

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