Not exactly what I was expecting from Alastair Reynolds (though I should probably know better) but maybe what I needed. It has been a hot 5.5 years since I read one of his books, and that is too long! I finished off the trilogy of main Revelation Space novels at the extreme tail-end of my enjoyment of high space opera. So it is fitting that, with Revenger, Reynolds introduces what might be a good compromise between my desire for magical science fantasy and my desire for more sensible science fiction.
Revenger is basically space pirate opera. You could take the basic plot and turn it into a regular pirate novel set on the high seas if you really wanted to. Arafura (the narrator) and her sister Adrana are the heiresses to a family that is not so fortunate anymore. So they run away, intent on making back the money their father has squandered, by treasure hunting. Except it all goes horribly wrong. Adrana is kidnapped by Bosa Sennen, an infamous (space) pirate. Fura vows to retrieve Adrana at all costs, and she means at all costs.
Basically, imagine Taken in space but instead of Liam Neeson it’s a 17-year-old girl who has no particular special skills and literally just the drive to do whatever it takes to get her sister back.
As I implied in the introduction, Revenger appears, on the surface, to be a departure from much of Reynolds’ other work. Most of his other novels are what I call high space opera, which is adjacent to Singularity- or post-Singularity-style science fiction but doesn’t necessarily require AI. In contrast, this book feels more low tech: no superluminal spaceflight (at least among humans), and humanity, such as it is, seems confined to a single solar system (which might be ours, just in the far future). Humanity itself has spread across hundreds of thousands of “worlds” (not all of which are planets). It’s explicitly stated that humanity has survived multiple falls of civilization, each one called an “Occupation” and given a number. It’s treasures from previous, usually more advanced, Occupations that treasure hunters like Fura and Adrana’s crews are after.
I say Revenger appears to be lower tech, because I’m not fully convinced it is. Reynolds is just the type of writer who has the skills not just to write believable high space opera but also conceal what he’s doing within low space opera. Because why not? While the main characters don’t have access to nanotechnology and other nearly-magical science fiction toys, it seems clear that previous civilizations did (the Ghosties, for one), and current alien species interacting with humanity might. The (possibly) true nature of the quoins, as revealed at the end of the book, also hints towards far greater technological treasures out there. So this story is, on one level, about rescue and revenge—but on another level it’s about opening humanity up to greater possibilities and rediscovering what might have been lost over the eons. I love a story with layers!
The space pirate motif works far more for me than I could have predicted. Generally, not a huge fan of sailing and sailing metaphors. And indeed, the direct sailing references in this book did very little for me. Yet the overall atmosphere? I dig it. Reynolds has skilfully created a world with the right mix of people, people who exist in that liminal space between an organized outfit (which would be too hierarchical) and totally anarchic scavengers. These treasure hunters and pirates are the kinds of rogues that could logically exist in the frontier-type atmosphere that presently suffuses this civilization.
Fura’s character development is really fascinating—but also a little uneven. What really fascinates me about it is how Reynolds quite intricately (because Fura narrates, so she is therefore quite unreliable) builds the case that Fura has always been a little bit broken. Like, if I had some kind of degree, I might think about diagnosing her as a borderline sociopath/psychopath? There’s something going on with her personality profile, anyway, and Adrana’s abduction is the last straw that finally causes her to tap into it. I would give examples, but I don’t really want to flag this review for spoilers. Suffice it to say, when I say that Fura will stop at nothing in her quest to rescue Adrana, I do literally mean that. Reynolds makes it quite clear that mere things like morality and ethics have no role in Fura’s new philosophy.
And this is where Revenger falls down slightly for me. As much as I enjoyed the incredibly intimate seat to Fura’s antiheroic exploits, I’m less sold on her relationship with Adrana. The story starts so abruptly, and Fura basically tells us that Adrana has always been the adventurous, rebellious one, while she has always been the good one, like a girl group duo of some kind … and then they’re off. While they are on Rackamore’s ship, there is very little meaningful interaction between them to help establish their rapport. Mostly we see a little bit of sibling rivalry, and some supportive interactions as well. Overall, though, this is where I feel the book is most lacking: I just don’t feel the close bond between the Ness sisters that Reynolds seems to want me to feel. Similarly, I found some of the antagonists—particularly Qindar—a little bit flat and one-note.
I bought Shadow Captain at the same time that I bought Revenger because both were on display at Chapters during a good sale event, and Reynolds has earned enough for me to buy two books in a series sight unseen. Fortunately, he continues this streak with this book, and I’ll read the sequel and report back soon.