(2016) Alastair Reynolds, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 425pp, ISBN 978-0-575-09055-2
Sisters, Adrana and Fura Ness escape their suffocating lives and, seeking adventure, join the crew of Captain Rackamore’s ship, the Monetta's Mourn. Here, they become bone readers, mysterious empaths who can send, receive and spy on messages being transmitted in deep space through mysterious alien skulls. However, all doesn’t go well for the sisters in their new world as Rackamore’s enemies quickly catch up and ambush his ship. Can Fura find a way to rescue her sister from the clutches of the evil pirate, Bosa Sennen?
The story is told to us as a memoire from Fura Ness, the younger of the two sisters. At the beginning, Reynolds swashbuckling science fiction story feels like it might have been written in the fifties. There’s a distinctive thematic quality to the world of Mazarile in which we are introduced to the sisters, Doctor Moreaux, their robot Paladin and their father. However, as the girls escape, we transition into something more contemporary – in this instance a utilitarian steampunk science fiction fantasy, with several nods to different classic works.
However, as the plot twists and turns, Reynolds establishes the quality of this story and the world it lives in. Rackamore and his crew are intrepid scavengers, harvesting technology from long forgotten deposits, known as baubles, which are miniature realities all to themselves. There is a play on time, relativity and other themes at work, revealing the story’s moment to be set in a complex post-galactic apocalypse. Humanity’s present in Revenger is very much after the apex of achievement and Reynolds sows plenty of seeds for further tales to be set in this rich landscape (or spacescape). These stories might be tied to the adventures of the Ness sisters or they might not.
The writing of Revenger is well paced and the narrator (Ness) never seems too capable, as events and the agendas of others twist and turn around her. The framing of the start, from where we know Fura will survive the story as she is our storyteller, does not get in the way of what we learn, nor does it make us consider her invulnerable. In Revenger, characters live, die and change. The latter quality being clearly demonstrated in the personal narrative arcs of the cast.
This particularly good quality in the writing does serve to highlight absence at times. We do have a set of characters who don’t adapt, or alter to accommodate the things that happen to them, in these are usually the individuals who end up dead.
Reynolds introduces and makes use of the specific narrative devices of his world carefully. The aforementioned robot, Paladin, has an important role to play as a device, but also progresses as a character. Similarly, the bone-reading and the bauble worlds are used to deliver information and to set agendas. People want the tech from inside the baubles, want to steal the alien skulls and skilled individuals who know how to use them.
The story concludes with a showdown between ships, captains, and crew as many stories do. In this ship to ship combat scene, and in the others throughout the book, there is a sense of inevitability over the outcome. Generally, we know which captain will prevail based on the tech and guns they have to hand. Fura’s position in these action scenes doesn’t allow for much operatic prose in these moments, which undercuts the promised theme of the book’s cover and the strong theme of its title, but then, this also harks back to many republished versions of science fiction classics, which contain a more introspective story than their artwork might suggest.
It is in this conclusion that the built up mythic monster, Bosa Sennen meets her fate. In her last moments, the true nature of the woman is revealed, along with a further twist to the story. In some ways, this is a little disappointing as Sennen had been projected to be something far more challenging and depraved than she turns out to be.
Revenger is a good story with echoes of the classics that inspired it woven into a new context. There is plenty of swash, buckle, baggage and baubles to go round.
See also Jonathan's take on Revenger.
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