Book review: Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain - Alastair Reynolds
****


I was surprised to find that not everyone took to Alastair Reynolds' YA-oriented space pirate adventure Revenger, although it was admittedly a little bit of a departure for the author. Personally, I found that it suited Reynolds' tendency towards pulp SF much better and, despite its teenage female narrator voice, Revenger told a very dark tale indeed in Arafura Ness's search for her missing sister Adrana, who had been abducted by the notorious pirate Bosa Sennen and was being tortured and reconfigured to become her successor. Yes the spaceships with sails, the nautical terms and the piracy references might have all been a little laboured, but Reynolds nonetheless was imaginative in his creation of how this world operated in terms of physics, but - more importantly - in how it established a place for great space adventure.

There was clearly room for further development of these ideas and they are extended, with a couple of new twists and turns, in Shadow Captain, the follow-up to Revenger. The year is 1800, which means it's eighteen hundred years since the foundation of the Thirteenth Occupation of the Congregation, an expansive grouping of planets, habitats and 'baubles' that make up the system. It's the baubles that were of particular interest in Revenger, of interest to the crews of many enterprises in the system since they hold treasures and technology from previous occupations. With a skilled crew and a talented conjurer, a scavenger ship can determine when a bauble is likely to temporarily drop its shield defences and give the crew a limited time to get in and try to unearth supplies, quoins (coins), lungstuff (oxygen) and other valuable objects for trade - as long as someone hasn't already been in and emptied the bauble.

It's a world that operates very much like a video game with the same kind of thrills, danger and adventure, one made even more dangerous due to the presence of ruthless pirates ready to pounce out of dark cloaking on any unwary ships who have recently successfully opened a bauble. The space adventure nature of such operations is present at the opening of Shadow Captain, when the surviving crew of the Revenger run a mission to stock up on fuel levels that are running dangerously low. Aside from the normal pitfalls of exploring a dead place far from civilisation that is filled with hazards and traps and only has a limited window of opportunity, the Ness sisters and Adrana and their team find they have to contend with an unusual danger in the form of zombie-like 'twinkle-heads'.

It's a good opening to reacquaint readers of the earlier Revenger to the nature of life in the Congregation, but it's also a good way to introduce any new readers to this strange world. Having got his pulp SF fix out of the way - quite thrillingly - Reynolds returns to the bigger matters that were hinted at in the earlier book. The matter of quoins is more than just the usual piratey hoarding of riches - although they do have a peculiar means of driving people to obsessively gather them - but as has already been hinted, there is something else mysterious in their origin and nature that leads an alien civilisation known as the Crawlies to become sort of unofficial bankers or speculators, eagerly building up their stocks for some curious and as yet unexplained reason.

There are two interests at play in the book however, each holding a different interest to the two sisters. While Fura is anxious to follow leads to Bosa Sennen's legendary 'buried treasure', Adrana is more interested in a new mystery into the nature of the Congregation that Arafura has discovered in some of the books recovered from Captain Rackamore, that there is a suggestion that there were other 'shadow occupations' in between the thirteen main occupations of the system that have been historically documented. Before they can follow either or both paths, the Revenger needs to restock supplies and deal with some injuries and that takes them to a little-known wheelworld, where the occupants and authorities don't seem to be terribly friendly and having heard rumours of Bosa Sennen like everyone else, are just a bit suspicious about this ship looking to dock there,

Reynolds evidently is not content to rest on repeating situations found in Revenger and successfully extends on the potential offered in Shadow Captain, and nor is he interested in just sticking to established characterisation. What is interesting about the second book in the series is that the narrative viewpoint has switched from Arafura to Adrana and inevitably after what they have been through, neither of the Ness sisters are the same as when they started out as two teenagers on Mazarile dreaming of a life of adventure on the high seas, or rather on the margins of the Empty. There is a darker side now residing in each of them that is threatening to take control, and that means there is some tension between them, each of them keeping secrets and suspicions to themselves. As expected, after Revenger, Reynolds plays this out beautifully and just increases anticipation for the next book in the series.

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