Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Revenger - Alastair Reynolds

Revenger is a new standalone novel by Alastair Reynolds. Set in a panoply of worlds and habitats close enough together to make travel between them if not routine, at least plausible, it has an atmosphere reminiscent of The Count of Monte Cristo, a tale of obsession and revenge missed with a coming-of-age story. The grand science fiction concepts Reynolds is famous for are still here, lurking in the setting – but there’s a strong protagonist over the top, with a personal narrative that invokes the setting, but isn’t subsumed by it.

That said, the setting is an intriguing one.  All the worlds appear to be artificial, in some fashion or other. Some are explicitly so, roving habitats and pressurised tin cans, circling in and out of the wider community of worlds. Others are more cunningly crafted, terrain and cities wrapped around artificial gravity generators. Alongside these habitations, ranging from city-sized worlds to larger conurbations, there’s the matter of ‘baubles’ – worlds and constructs which are shielded from entry, but seem to open under their own criteria, revealing whatever treasures lie within.

Treasures is the key word here, as well. This federation of artificial worlds, now inhabited by what appears to be humanity, or a close analogue, already have a long history. A history of warfare, occupation, technological advance and mass extinction over millennia – and artifacts left over from all those millennia are cached in the ‘baubles’, ready to be picked up for an extensive profit, alongside precious metals and other negotiable currency. This makes diving into baubles a daring, risky, sometimes deadly profession – those who do so acting as a clique of space-borne Indiana Jones-types.

From a character standpoint, we’re initially focused on the Ness sisters, Adrana and Fura, and their conflicts both with each other, and with the outside world. They’re constrained somewhat by the pseudo-Victorian social milieu in which they live their lives, and break away, somewhat, becoming part of the world of bauble exploration and space travel. The sisters are interesting studies – one, initially impulsive, slowly becoming more taciturn in the face of consequences outside her control. The other, the younger, begins as something of a naïf. Watching her transition through the text is intriguing – a shift from the gently baffled, to the competent and friendly, to the white-hot, focused rage of someone dealing with circumstances outside of the norm.

There’s secondary characters here of course – crew members,  both antagonistic and friendly. A localised villain, in some ways unpleasantly familiar and deserving of comeuppance. There’s a larger villain too, at least initially faceless, an individual driven by forces outside of the view of our heroes. An elemental force of ruin and despair. Each of these, Reynolds captures perfectly, giving the reader enough to see them as people, but leaving us to our own devices to fill in the blanks.
Still, it’s the initial sisterly relationship, and the slow burn from acceptance into revenge, the way a personality can be shaped or even warped by circumstance, which is on display here – and it’s absolutely pitch perfect, and marvellously convincing.

The plot – there’s a broader metaplot in the background, which I think was worth more attention than I had perhaps given it. But the story of a personal journey, of development in danger and trial, of a gradual Nietzschean shift, as the hunter becomes the object of the hunt – that story is an incredibly compelling and intriguing one, in a subtle and complex world, staffed by plausible, characters. The red hot iron of vengeance runs off of every page, and makes it very difficult to put the book down – indeed, I could not do so, and finished at 4AM< with the lights out.

This is a wonderful piece by Reynolds, very much worth your attention. It has a plausible and fascinating world, cloaked in his usual well-researched background. It has well-drawn, intriguing, often horrifying characters, pouring themselves onto the page in the service of a thoroughly page-turning plot. In short – it’s an excellent, gripping piece of work, and I commend it to your attention.

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