Revenger, by Alistair Reynolds
I very recently finished Revenger by Alistair Reynolds. I can highly recommend this novel.
Reynolds at the top of his game is an awesome sight to behold. This novel is no disappointment.
Arafura and Adrana Ness are sisters living with their father in Mazarile, which is one of the many constituent worlds within the Congregation. Things could be worse, but have been a lot better – sadly, the family is living in a state of faded grandeur. Their mother was carried away during the last plague, and their father recently lost most of the family’s money in a bad investment. While no-one is wounded or going hungry, nonetheless things aren’t great. Also, the sisters chafe under the oppressive leash of Doctor Morcenx, whom their father has contracted to provide medical services and to administer certain other requirements.
Quite unexpectedly, one day, the sisters gain an opportunity to escape their restrictive lives. They arrange to join the crew of a sunjammer, the Monetta’s Mourn, as so-called Bone Readers. The neuroplasticity of their brains allows them to interface with the so-called ‘bones’, artifacts of potentially-alien origin that can commune at astronomical distances.
But while life in space affords them greater freedom than life within Mazarile, it also has its own set of risks. The sisters quickly find themselves facing things they had never imagined, and the situation will only darken.
Plus, whilst they have left home, home has not forgotten them. And unlike them, their father can still afford to hire lawyers. The sisters’ desire for freedom and the laws of Mazarile may not be entirely in confluence…
WHAT I LIKED
The setting of the novel is interesting. It’s a space-based environment that takes a strong inspiration from the Age of Sail – but it does so without throwing hard science under the bus. That’s an impressive balancing act.
The setting is interesting. The Congregation consists of an agglomeration of settled asteroids, space stations, O’neill cylinders and maybe even a few derelict starships, parked in orbit around Sol. As far as can be told, it appears to be an extremely post-apocalyptic future for our own solar system – Earth is explicitly-mentioned once, although the planet was apparently destroyed during the Shatterday, millions of years ago. Various cycles of Occupation have waxed and waned across the Congregation – civilisations have risen, fallen, and mutated into strange new forms. In the process, perhaps like the tide as it washes over the beach, they’ve left behind all sorts of weird relics that the adventurous can try their luck with.
The setting feels epic – it’s a vast collection of worlds with an enormous depth of history behind it. There are aliens, weird artifacts, weirder humans and all sorts of space opera goodness.
In terms of characters, Adrana and Arafura gradually-but-distinctly change roles across the novel. Initially, Adrana is the actor and Arafura is dragged along in her sister’s wake. However, Fura gradually grows, gains confidence and hardens up. As she does, she also takes charge and starts making plans of her own. Not all of them are good – Fura is no saint – but nonetheless, she doesn’t just sit back and wait for the inevitable. By contrast, Adrana actually seems to become more passive as the novel progresses. (Some of this is implied to be a side-effect of the traumas inflicted on her by $WALKING_SPOILER.)
I wouldn’t say that I like Dr Morcenx- he’s horrible – but nonetheless, his characterisation was an interesting tightrope act. He never actually does anything overtly-violent or overtly-sexual, but nonetheless he is creepy and threatening. One would not want to be stuck in an elevator with Morcenx! (Also, there is a sense that he genuinely believes he’s doing the right thing.)
Also, one little detail that I liked – the aliens are here for their own reasons, and those reasons are completely-orthogonal to any human concerns.
WHAT IF FOUND PROBLEMATIC
Oh dear – I really struggled with the economics here. Frankly, it’s no wonder that the Congregation has regular, massive financial collapses – none of its governments have any control over the money supply. By implication, this also means no-one has any control over interest rates. Using the quoins as a currency is just asking for trouble. (Much as I love Reynolds’ work, and I do, his politics and economics can be a bit vague sometimes.)
Also, this novel does have some fairly big plot-threads that don’t really go anywhere. We get a sort of answer about what the Crawlies are actually about (see my comment above, about the orthogonal interests), but it raises more questions than it resolves. But also, where did Bosa Sennen come from in the first place? Where did the Nightjammer come from? Why does hardly anyone know about neutrinos? (They all live in space, for goodness sake! Without neutrinos, nuclear fusion can’t work, and that means no stars!) Also, the baubles – surely with all the prospectors running around, the supply of them should be running down by now?
Also, just what exactly happened on the Shatterday? How did humanity survive? What about the other planets that were in the solar system? What happens between Occupations? Is Trevanza Reach actually a derelict starship, or is that just rumour? Yeah, enquiring minds want to know, and sadly, there are no concrete answers here.
(There may be a single, small clue about the Shatterday, and that would be the remarkable number of ‘swallowers’ – quantum black holes – that are distributed throughout the Congregation. Interestingly, none of the swallowers appear to show any evidence of Hawking evaporation.)
If you liked the Revelation Space novels, I reckon you’ll like this one. If you like rich, detailed space opera with vivid backgrounds, you’ll enjoy this one. If you like subtle-but-significant character development, you’ll enjoy this one. However, this is a novel that supplies relatively few concrete answers, so if you need every detail nailed down, beware.