Revenger | Alastair Reynolds | 2016 (15 September) | Gollancz | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book
Adrana and Fura Ness are young sisters who live with their father and protective robot on the small and unremarkable world of Mazerile. Both are bored, their futures not bright, and so, when Adrana grabs the opportunity to run away aboard Captain Rackaway’s sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn, Fura needs little persuading to come too. In fact, both sisters are desirable shipmates for Rackaway’s mixed bag of a crew – they are Sympathetics, or Bone readers. This means that they can communicate with the skull that engines their ship, like all of the other ships that negotiate the inter-galactic network of trade routes established by an unknown species so long ago nobody can even guess how long it was.
The Monetta’s Mourn and other ships like it are seeking fortune and glory. They know it is to be found on any one of the baubles – artificially constructed planets sealed by a forcefield that hides completely any potential wonders – that litter space. Only the skull, and the Bone Readers, know which forcefields are to lift next while it’s up to the Bauble Scanners to predict for how long they will be open. Being sealed inside is the fate worse than death that fills the heart of all with dread. But the treasures below, hidden alien artefacts, make the risk worth while. But with such treasure available, not everyone wants to get it the hard way. Pirates trawl the star systems and they are ruthless, their violence extreme.
In Revenger Alastair Reynolds transports the reader into a richly visualised future world in which mankind has spread across the stars but is held in thrall by the unknowable alien cultures that once ruled the universe and have left behind such tantalising gifts and demons. We witness this world through the experiences of Fura Ness, a young girl who has no choice but to grow quickly as everything she knows is torn from her. She is battered into new shape by events and it is bitter sweet watching her transformation.
The novel combines the familiar with the unexpected and alien. On one level, Revenger is a swashbuckler of an adventure, evoking a lost world of tall ships, pirates, voyages over stormy seas and treasure chests. The language matches, sending us straight into a science fiction Treasure Island as crew in spacesuits talk in pirate-speak (everyone’s a ‘cove’), mixed up with many other descriptive terms, such as ‘lungstuff’ for air, ‘Crawlies’ for aliens with multiple legs, ‘Swallowers’ for black holes. But the swashbuckling world is confronted by the alien – the brilliantly described, enigmatic and sinister bauble ‘planets’, the skulls in the heart of the ships, the movement of people across great swathes of space that they don’t have a hope of understanding. And right there in the centre is the young girl Fura.
It is always a great day when a new Alastair Reynolds novel is published and Revenger raises so many fascinating questions about the alien past of this universe and the hints we glimpse are intriguing in the extreme, leaving this reader wishing for much, much more. Revenger is a stand alone novel but it cries out for another. There is plenty of hard science fiction in Revenger if you look for it, and those were my favourite elements, but the novel will also have broad appeal as a swashbuckling and undeniably thrilling science fiction adventure – I think young readers will feel particularly drawn to the remarkable character of Fura. On a trivial note, I do love that cover…
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