Review of Shadow Captain by

Book cover for Shadow Captain

I love fierce sister duos. You know, the kind where the two sisters have complementary skills and get on each other’s nerves yet always have the other’s back? That kind.

Yeah, Shadow Captain isn’t quite that kind of story.

Adrana and (Ara)fura Ness have managed to dispatch the fearsome space pirate Bosa Sennen, taking her ship in the process. These young women are way out of their league, however, and now that they are in charge of the Revenger, as they’re calling their prize, everyone else is going to think they’re the pirates. Adrana, our narrator this time around, is still trying to recover from her torture at Bosa’s hands. Meanwhile, she is worried about what Fura had to do to rescue her, and the long-term effect that’s going to have on Fura’s mental health. The sisters try to put up a united front for everyone else, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re on shaky ground.

Although a part of me yearns for that good ol’ sister duo ferocity, I will admit to enjoying the conflict Alastair Reynolds creates through the Ness sisters. With each of them on edge, for slightly different reasons, nothing ever quite feels right in this book. Moments of possible redemption turn on a dime into disappointment and bitterness—not through deliberate, over-the-top betrayal, per se, but more through the slow attrition of mistrust.

This is a book about how small cracks in relationships and grow into wedges and fractures that threaten to shatter at the slightest pressure.

Expanding this to the wider cast: no one here is really a friend. Some are friendly, like Prozor. Others are cagey, like Strambli. Whatever the case, the book reminds me of the crews of Serenity in Firefly or Moya in Farscape: joined together more out of common cause, or having no place else to go, than any real like of each other. Reynolds reminds us that this can work just as well when it comes to having characters work together towards a common goal.

Shadow Captain feels slow to me, because the majority of the book is spent approaching and then tiptoeing around Strizzardly Wheel. I kept waiting for the “plot” to happen, by which I mean further developments in the sisters’ involvement with the overarching conspiracies afoot—the quoins, the mysteries of the Occupations, the aliens, etc. I never expected those matters to truly take over the foreground, but I kept waiting for more to happen than “we need to visit this station and oh look we’re running afoul of the criminal overlord of the week oh no.” I felt like most of this novel turned into one big sidequest in a space version of Bioshock.

I continue to dig that overarching story. I’m really intrigued to see where Reynolds goes with all this (I have some ideas, but of course there’s still so much left up in the air right now). That’s his hope, of course: tease the reader with just enough to keep them reading into the next book, even if the rest of the story wasn’t as satisfying. I just hope that the next book presents a more dynamic plot, in which the Ness sisters have a little more agency than “get into trouble at Strizzardly.”

I guess I come for the mystery and stay for the sister relationship. There are points in the book, when Adrana asks Paladin to keep something between them, when Adrana makes decisions or uncovers certain facts that Fura might have been obscuring … points when I was reading this, sipping a cup of tea, in my nice, hot bath, and it felt like Reynolds was really capturing the importance of that family dynamic. As sardonically critical as I am of the story here, this protagonist duo is probably one of the best I’ve seen in a while, purely on the ground of the depth of feeling beneath the tension in their relationship. It’s not something that can or even should be resolved easily, and I’m really happy that Shadow Captain goes in the direction of widening the gulf instead of closing it easily.

My overall impression of this series may hinge on the next book (if it is indeed the concluding volume) and where it takes us….

Engagement

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