Reviewed by David Harris
Alastair Reynolds has a reputation as a prolific writer of SF and made waves a few years ago when he signed a ten book deal with Gollancz. However, I hadn’t read any of his books before Revenger so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I understand, though, that it’s not typical of his work, especially in that, as I heard him put it in an interview, it’s ‘YA approachable’. He also said he’d deliberately written a shorter book, and a more pacey book.
So this seemed like a good place to start reading Reynolds’s stuff, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Revenger is an action-packed, swashbucking adventure with dashes, perhaps, of steam or even cyber-punk which at the same time, tells a solid space opera story – literally: everything that happens, happens in space: even the ‘worlds’ are not planets but engineered habitations no more than a few leagues in length or breadth. These worlds, numbering in the millions (there are whole books that catalogue them) surround the Old Sun, forming the ‘Constellation’. If there were planets they have been reworked, mined away, over millions of years, during which time umpteen civilisations have flourished and decayed. It’s a bold and exciting setting, giving a convincing depth of history (there are allusions to wars, alien incursions, the return of generation ships from the deep) and also scope for the sort of ship-borne antics you might otherwise get in Stevenson or Ballantyne – but IN SPACE!
The story is narrated by Fura Ness: she’s nearly (but not quite) 16 which is an issue because it means that – unlike her slightly older sister Adrana – if her father catches her, he can have her brought home and treated with a drug to prevent her ever growing up. (There is a creepy doctor sidekick more than willing to administer said drug). This touch of Roald Dahlish adult perfidy is meant to show, I think, how unbalanced Father is by the loss of Fura and Adrana’s mother; and perhaps also to explain their decision to run away to space.
Because this is, most of all, a version of that classic tale where a young girl takes to the high seas in search of adventure, danger and booty. (The family fortunes were lost in an ill-advised expedition: Fura and Adrana want to replenish them with loot). Think Treasure Island crossed with… whatever your favourite space opera is. There’s a consciously rollicking, West Country lilt and a distinct argot to the speech of the girls’ crewmates, with words like ‘cove’ (for a person) ‘the glowy’, ‘the Empty’ and much, much more – alongside the abandoned tech of past civilizations, which can be recovered, at great risk, from ‘baubles’, tiny caches out there in the dark.
Treasure Islands, which the brave can loot – if they dare.
If they survive…
The tech seems to be vital to the current civilisation: even the sailcloth that enables the ‘sunjammers’ to ride the flux of solar radiation isn’t made any more and the very currency that’s used between the worlds – the strange ‘quoins’ – is found in the caches, like so many ill-gotten doubloons.
But where there is treasure there are pirates. Also out there, somewhere in the dark, is the incomparable pirate captain Bosa Sennen with her crew of cutthroats, who will stop at nothing.
Bosa Sennen. What can I say about her? A legend who, they say, can’t exist, because her stories have been told for decades. A pirate captain of peerless cruelty, evil-hearted as they come, fearless, cunning and posssessed of a matchless ship.
If she exists…
The book is, then a swaggering, expansive story of theft, revenge, bloodlust – with some even darker hints. There are aliens, who don’t appear much, but seem to have their own agenda. There are the caches of loot, which include some deeply eerie artifacts – ‘ghostie stuff’ – which are useful, but seem to sap the very soul. And, perhaps most chilling of all, is Adrana’s and Fura’s natural affinity, with ‘the bones’ which provide the most creepy form of communication I’ve encountered in SF.
While this is clearly a book which has many antecedents – besides the Victorian classics, I could also throw in China Mieville’s Railsea, as another example of a story which takes nautical conventions and places them in a new setting, or M John Harrison’s Viriconium, for the sheer sense of age, the whole living on a junkheap vibe – Reynolds has created a unique atmosphere, a tense, gripping and pacey book that ought by rights to establish a whole new genre.
And in Fura, especially, he’s also created a vivid and determined protagonist, not your stereotypical kick-ass heroine but a young woman who has found adventure but more, steeled herself to do what she must to win back something she has lost. In the course of the book Fura transforms from starry eyed teen to grim, accomplished crewmate, ruthless and, in the right cause, downright dishonest. By the end of the book there’s an open question as to whether she’s given up more than she can win back – what with the schemes she’s laid, the betrays that are necessary, trucking with the Bones, using the ghostie stuff – but most of all, stepping into that grim lawless sphere beyond the Constellation…
Strongly recommended for anyone who’s stirred by the thought of high adventure and who values a genuinely ripping SF yarn.
David blogs at Blue Book Balloon. A former physicist, he is married to a vicar and lives by a village green sometimes used to film Midsomer Murders, but has, against the odds, survived so far. David works in tax but promises he isn’t going to bring that up here.
Alastair Reynolds, Revenger, (Gollancz, 2016), ISBN 978-1473200548, 432pp., hardback.
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