The Iron Tactician by Alastair Reynolds (book review).

I haven’t read any of Alastair Reynolds’ previous stories about interplanetary traveller Merlin, but in ‘The Iron Tactician’ we have a novella of almost 100 pages that give enough hints about his background and that of the galaxy he inhabits to make previous knowledge unnecessary. The book is intriguing enough, though, that I now want to go and find those three previous stories to fill in the blanks and enjoy this rich and compelling setting.

Merlin is alone aboard his starship, Tyrant, travelling the galaxy on a mission to find a weapon powerful enough to stop the Huskers, the formidable foe who have destroyed starships and worlds as they sweep through the galaxy. The back stories of Merlin and of Teal, whom he comes across early in the story, sketch a picture of almost helplessness against this enemy without too much detail or information on who they are. Merlin comes across a derelict starship and a star system at war and ends up embroiled in a plot to recover the Iron Tactician in order to gain the equipment needed to keep his own ship going.

Like his novels, Alastair Reynolds’ space opera is on a grand scale, covering centuries or even millennia thanks to time dilation and suspended animation and with civilisations spread over innumerable star systems. Even on the relatively small scale of this book, the weight of history and vast empires can be felt in the background. Huge ships and massive architecture are also in evidence, displaying the millennia-old developments of human colonies and of ancient races that have gone before. This all goes to make the novella feel much bigger and more epic than it might otherwise be and allows this episode to fit in to a much bigger tale.

Merlin is an interesting character, considering I’m not entirely sure of his background, a seemingly arrogant and laid-back character whose intriguing relationship with his ship keeps him human. The contrast between technologies available to Merlin and of the system-bound civilisation he encounters also help to illustrate the scale of mankind’s spread across time and space.

This first novella in a new series from NewCon Press shares a single cover image spread across four volumes by different authors, making it also a bit of a collectors’ edition. Alastair Reynolds does not disappoint and I shall be interested to see what the subsequent novellas bring.

Gareth D Jones

February 2017

(pub: Newcon Press. 92 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 6.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-919035-30-9)

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