Revenger - Alastair Reynolds
Revenger - Alastair Reynolds *****
Alastair Reynolds is full of surprises, which I suppose is something you would like to think of as an ideal quality for a science-fiction writer. Whether its sprawling epic family dramas over a series of books (Poseidon's Children), hard-SF action drama (the Revelation Space series), pulp-SF (The Prefect), short stories or one-off fiction ideas, there is always some new aspect of science to explore in relation to physics, time, technology, space travel, robots, alien life and humanity's place within it. Reynolds' most recent work was a collaboration with Stephen Baxter (The Medusa Chronicles) that expanded on an Arthur C. Clarke story to consider the future relationship between man and technology, so his new approach to his latest work Revenger comes as something of a surprise.
The surprise is not so much in the content as the style. In terms of content, Revenger is very much within the Alastair Reynolds vision of the universe. There's a little bit of a family saga of The House of Suns, a little bit of Selveste's excavations of ancient alien artefacts on long abandoned planets of Revelation Space, and there's also something in Revenger of the dangerous planet loaded with hidden traps for the unwary explorer found in works like Diamond Dogs and Pushing Ice. In Revenger, Arafura Ness and her sister Adrana - despite one of them being underage - have signed on as crew members aboard the Captain Rackamore's Monetta's Mourn to explore outlying planets for ancient artefacts and treasures. The girls have a rare skill for reading bones, tapping into the skulls of long gone species of creatures from previous Occupations of this system. Reading the bones is a bit like CB radio, the girls able to pick up fleeting signals from other ship communications, but with instruction and practice they can also pick up rather more inexplicable readings from these long-dead skulls, carrying portents and messages from where no one really knows or understands.
There are a lot of potential dangers lying in wait outside the Congregation, but also considerable wealth for those willing to take the risks of going down into 'baubles' during the brief period when they drop their protective layer and collecting the treasures stored there by previous long-gone civilisations. The whole process requires a crew of many different skills, from those charged with running the ship to bauble readers whose 'auguries' can predict when one bauble will open up and for how long (although it's far from an exact science) and assessors who can determine the value of the treasures found there. What happened to these ancient civilisations is unknown and shrouded in mystery, but some of their science can also be very dangerous indeed. There are however also present dangers to be wary of, such as other ships muscling in, and even pirates like the notorious Bosa Sennen.
There's perhaps more of the SF pulp adventure of Reynolds in Revenger than the speculative scientific and human exploration of his more complex and densely plotted works, but what is different about the author's latest book is that it has a very Young Adult feel to it. It's a style that Reynolds adapts to very well indeed. For all the danger involved in two young sisters running off in search of adventure on board a commercial spaceship, the tone of the writing in Revenger has a rare lightness and charm about it. It takes this tone of course from its narrator, Fura, who is compiling her adventures in the book as 'The True and Accurate Testimony of Arafura Ness'. It's particularly wonderful in the exchanges between Arafura and her family robot Paladin, but the slang and use of words is also amusing. The human inhabitants, for example (if they even are human in this system - how they got there is one of those mysteries not entirely known) are referred to as 'monkeys' and the air they breathe is called 'lungstuff' throughout.
There's a certain amount of YA cuteness in this language and perspective that Reynolds captures wonderfully, but he also manages to adapt to the development that Fura's character undergoes over the course of the novel. Underneath all the descriptions of discovery and adventure you can detect that there is an edge of darkness and danger in this space-faring life that two young girls have embarked upon. Inevitably, the young girls cannot remain immune or untouched by what they experience (the title of the book should be clue enough of this) and there's a grim inevitability to events that the author doesn't for a moment shy away from. It might not be Reynolds operating on epic space opera scale and the story does arrive at a natural and satisfying conclusion that has an air of grim poetic justice to it, but there's an intriguing universe created by the author in Revenger and some fabulous characters here that you'd just love to see expanded upon further. Whether he returns there in the future or not, Reynolds is in fine form here and shows he still capable of having something new to offer his readers.
Revenger by Alastair Reynolds is published by Victor Gollancz on 15th September 2016.