Revenger by Alastair Reynolds (book review)

The majority of Science Fiction writers are usually content to populate the galaxy of their novels with standard star systems of planets orbiting a central star. Constructed worlds are rarer. Bob Shaw gave us a Dyson sphere in ‘Orbitsville’, Larry Niven took many time to visit a ringworld and Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Rama’ was a cylindrical world. Admittedly, Rama had more in common with a generation ship as it travelled from place to place, but it provided a habitable environment. All kinds of strange worlds have been envisaged by writers and most scientists are sceptical that they’d ever be built because of the expense and the vast resources needed if the technical problems could be overcome.

Alastair Reynolds has decided to have some fun. He’s put all the possibilities and then some, in close proximity. The humans that currently live on them have only been there for about eighteen centuries and this the thirteenth Occupation of the Sundered Worlds. Current thinking is that ten million years previously, the planets in a star system were cut up to provide the material to make thousands of smaller worlds of a myriad of designs. Some had swallowers (miniscule black holes) at the centre to provide gravity. In those ten million years, civilisations have come and gone, some human, some alien. Now it is humans who have colonised the worlds. Scattered throughout the habitable worlds are structures called baubles. Surrounded by force fields that occasionally dissipate they are alien constructions that contain potential treasure. Fortune-seekers track down baubles that are about to open to plunder the wealth in them. It is dangerous work.

Adrana and Arafura are sisters living on Mazarile, a small world with a swallower at its centre. One evening, while they are supposed to attending a civic function, Adrana slips out, followed by Arafura, who initially just intends to persuade her older sister not to upset their father. Instead, both girls head into the market area. Adrana has been here before and has discovered that she has the talent to be a Bone Reader. Arafura, she discovers has it, too. Adrana convinces her sister that if they sign on with a ship as Bone Readers, they have a chance of earning enough quoins to pay off their father’s debts.

They end up on Monetta’s Mourn, under Captain Pol Rackamore. Everyone on the crew has a function. In the centre of the ship is a room containing a very old skull. Inside it are glittering lights. A Bone Reader can plug in to various nodes in the skull and receive communications from other ships via their skulls. Other members of the crew look after the ion drive which takes the ship out of the gravity well before the huge sails are deployed to catch photons from the sun for propulsion. Monetta’s Mourn is a sunjammer. Most other roles are connected with the business of plundering a bauble for whatever treasure is concealed inside.

This is not a perfect world. There are pirates, the most notorious is Bosa Sennen. She attacks, killing most of the crew and abducting Adrana as her new Bone Reader. Arafura escapes by hiding but vows to find her sister, a task that is not straightforward as she will have to find a ship to rescue her first, then another to enjoin her quest, especially as no captain would willing go anywhere near Bosa or her ship.

‘Revenger’ has many of the hallmarks of a YA novel in that the main characters are teenagers an Bone Readers talents fail as they reach adulthood and the story is told in first person by Arafura. The sisters embark on their adventures leaving their father behind. After her sister is taken, Arafura has to solve adult problems to survive and achieve her objective. At the same time, this is a very adult book and the space-faring characters make to concessions to the ages of the sisters. They are crew and, as such, are expected to behave in a responsible, adult fashion. The sights and events that Arafura, in particular, has to face are at times extremely unpleasant.

This is not a perfect novel. In order for the reader to appreciate the setting, much of the first quarter of the book has a tendency towards the domestic, with the sisters having the situation and their role on the crew explained to them. While this is, to some extent, necessary it does mean that the real action, where the tension is suddenly ramped up, is put off. Nevertheless, the setting is fascinating and it would be interesting to explore more of the worlds in the Congregation, as well as some of the history of other Occupations. Overall, this is an enjoyable read and is very immersive, once the action gets going.

Pauline Morgan

February 2017

(pub: Gollancz, 2016. 425 page hardback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-09053-8)

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