Original Pirate Material
Space pirates ahoy! Alastair Reynolds hoists the Jolly Roger for a YA caper.
Not his best book, but his most enjoyable
released 15 september 432 pages | Hardback/ebook/audiobook Author alastair reynolds Publisher Gollancz
Now this is fun. Having lately finished a family saga that traces humankind’s first expansion beyond the solar system with his Poseidon’s Children trilogy and, in the company of Stephen Baxter, conjured up the spirit of Arthur C Clarke for The Medusa Chronicles – both projects that required a certain rigour – it seems Alastair Reynolds is in the mood to cut loose. To put that another way: Revenger is about pirates in space.
If this brings forth images of Firefly or SF from the Golden Age, then that’s entirely apposite, because Reynolds’s new novel is packed full of adventure, good and not-so-good people working together to deal with bad situations, and the kind of space battles where ships have to be boarded and taken in hand-tohand combat.
It’s a tale narrated by Arafura Ness, a teenager brought up on a backwater planet. Raised by a conservative father who worries about maintaining a position in society he can’t really afford following financial setbacks, her life is stultifying. But then both Arafura and her rebellious elder sister, Adrana, discover they have a talent for “bone reading”, operating a communications system based on mysterious alien technology.
Before you can say, “That’s a bit Robert Louis Stevenson”, the duo have run away to join a ship skippered by Captain Rackamore, a man who makes his living by flying to “baubles” – boobytrapped worldlets where, for those who know how to get in and out without getting killed or trapped in the process, there are valuable and ancient alien artefacts to be scavenged. And there are plenty of baubles to be found, because the universe Reynolds imagines here is a place where civilisations have risen and fallen for so long that what’s left is a kind of cosmic junkyard. As with Reynolds’s steampunk novel Terminal World, there’s a sense of history weighing down on Revenger’s characters. But it’s not just existential dread that grips Arafura. On her first mission out, things go badly awry when Rackamore and his crew encounter a near-mythical villainess. Suffice to say we’re not just talking pirates in space, but eldritch pirates in space. And, as the title suggests, a girl out for vengeance.
If this is all sounding a bit hokey, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that Revenger is being sold on Amazon as a Young Adult novel. It’s accordingly a much more straightforward book than, say, Revelation Space or its sequels. But that’s not to say Reynolds in any way writes down to his audience. Instead, he makes a virtue of needing to keep his narrative straightforward and his storytelling crisp by using the space this creates to focus in on character.
In particular, Arafura emerges from these pages as vibrant and wholly believable. This is no mean trick, because Reynolds alters her voice over the course of the book, so that she begins by speaking in a rather prim fashion but, by way of some sly jokes about how we all disguise ourselves to fit in, ends the book talking like a proper buccaneer. That Arafura’s emotional journey is just as convincing as we follow her coming of age in terrible circumstances says much about the quality of Reynolds’ prose.
If you were going to be critical, you’d say that Reynolds might have been a little too influenced by Serenity when it comes to some of the book’s more gothic flourishes, but mostly you’ll likely be too busy reading just one more chapter to notice. More seriously, this isn’t by any means Reynolds’s best book – if “best” means exploring big philosophical ideas and big science. However, it’s by far the most enjoyable book Reynolds has ever written. We await the sequels signposted at the end impatiently. Jonathan Wright
Alastair Reynolds’s next book will be an as-yet-untitled sequel to The Prefect, set in his Revelation Space universe.