Bone Silence (Revenger trilogy book 3) by Alastair Reynolds (book review).

Space Opera was a term coined in the 1930s and related to fictional adventures set almost entirely off-planet. Spaceships ignored the problems of relativity and crossed huge voids in days or even hours. The majority of the characters were male, aliens were there to fight or subjugate and any woman was someone to be rescued.

As with our perceptions of race, gender and science, Space Opera has come a long way. There has to be an advanced scientific method of reaching far away stars, even if the aliens provide it, and the characters tend to be more gender- and colour-blind. Aliens can be friends. In other words, the best Space Opera reflects the times in which the author is living.

Alastair Reynolds is a modern proponent of Space Opera. The ‘Revenger trilogy’ has all the magic ingredients. The action and this book is packed with that is mostly set in space. The setting is millennia in our future. The Solar System was dismantled a very long time ago and numerous worlds, many of fanciful constructions, house the population. Some of them are like space stations, others small worlds with gravity, usually provided by a swallower aka mini-black hole. Since the dismantling, the Congregation Of Worlds has been subject to twelve previous Occupations. History covers such a long period that no-one knows where the people who developed the civilisations of each Occupation came from, though there are relics often hidden on dangerous structures known as Baubles. Some of these artefacts are discs known as quoins and are used as currency.

When serious change happens, the people at the centre of it probably didn’t intend or prepare for the consequences that bring it about. Certainly Adrana and Arafura Ness didn’t when they headed out into space from their home world. In the first volume, ‘Revenger’, they fall in with a notorious pirate called Bosa Sennen.

By the end of the book, they have defeated the woman and taken control of her ship which they rename Revenger. The big problem is that the authorities of the Congregation are not prepared to believe that Sennen is dead, which makes the Ness sisters and their ship a target. One of the things that Sennen was supposed to have was a vast stash of quoins stolen from ships she had attacked. The second volume, ‘Shadow Captain’, is partly about the search for them.

The Ness sisters are curious about what the quoins really are, especially when they inadvertently put a large quantity together and all the quoins in the whole of the Congregation changed their value. It is clear that they were not originally minted as money.

The other mystery is how and why the Occupations occur. From Sennen’s notes, it seems that the Congregation is seeded at regular intervals but that not every seeding takes. Why an Occupation ends is also a mystery. These are questions that the majority of people aren’t bothered about.

One of the ways ships communicate is through very old, alien skulls. Both Adrana and Arafura are Bone Readers. They can plug into a skull and listen in to the conversations between other ships. As they are regarded as pirates, whatever they may assert, they are wanted. As the third book ‘Bone Silence’ opens, they have disguised the ship and headed for a world where they hope to be able to find a suitable skull to replace theirs and acquire other provisions.

As can be expected in this kind of story, nothing goes as smoothly as they hope. Adrana agrees to take an alien, a Clacker, to Trevenza Reach, a spindle world on the edge of the Congregation. She hopes he will have some information that will satisfy some of her curiosity. This is not a simple task as they are attacked by muddleheads. These creatures are constructed from bits of human, animal and alien and temporarily animated. This gives Adrana another question: how can human and alien bits be made to cohere if their evolution and origin is different? Not that she has time to ponder the question as almost as soon as they escape into space they have other problems.

Revenger still has no skull as, since they are regarded as pirates, they decide to steal one, attacking a bauble prospector. Though they are careful to leave the ship with enough resources to make it to a port for repairs, they are being hunted by a military squadron that they may not be able to outrun.

These are only some of the problems the Ness sisters face. At every turn, there is the prospect of disaster. Living in space is fraught with risk, so expect some collateral damage. The pace is relentless but the situations, including the setting, have a ring of authenticity about them. This is Space Opera at its best but to appreciate it at its fullest it is best to start at the beginning of the trilogy. Nevertheless, this is a very satisfying read.

Pauline Morgan

April 2020

(pub: Gollancz, 2020. 602 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-09067-5)

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