New York, NY: Orbit, 2016
The evidence of alien life and successful human attempts to transcend planetary geography are all around the people in this swashbuckling new novel by leading science fiction writer Alastair Reynolds but, alas, our ability to take advantage of these resources has been drastically diminished by the impact of entropic ageing. Like our understanding of the people of Dark Ages Britain, who looked upon the works of the departed Romans as the products of the Age of Giants, so too does humanity consider alien artifacts with a wild surmise. Those brave pirates who are able to penetrate the artifacts (which act according to predictable although gnomic rhythms) and can bring back swag from the inside without meeting catastrophic failures might be able to live very well on the proceedings for years to come. Yet the proceeds will quickly be watered down if the crew size is too large and so the pirate captains have an incentive to minimise crew numbers by ensuring that those who are enlisted re appropriately skilled for their main function and, also, preferably with other strings to their bows. Some skills may be obtained through hard work and aptitude but others are arcane and difficult to find. Principal among these skills is bone reading. For some reason, aliens have left behind a series of extra-solar system skulls from which, given the right equipment and conditions, may be coaxed communications from across space. A good bone reader would be capable, therefore, of providing a significant competitive advantage for their captains and that leads to benefits all round.
Enter, then, our two heroines, Adrana and Fura Ness, who hail from a solid bourgeois background which they are obliged to leave and seek their fortunes among the stars. As natural bone readers, they are able to obtain employment and lodging with Captain Rockamore and his crew, where prospects seem initially bright. Alas, not all who dwell in space are well-intentioned and the Monetta’s Mourn becomes victim of a space-jacking and forced to suffer the none-too-tender ministrations of notorious pirate Bosa Sennen. This sets the course for the rest of the book and we await the eponymous ship to arrive on the scene and set things aright.
I have to admit that when I first heard of this book, my heart sank slightly. I am a fan of Reynolds and I have seen what can happen when otherwise sensible writers (e.g. China Mieville and Steven Erikson) dip into parody and would-be satire. However, Revenger does not suffer from these kinds of problems. The universe created is detailed and vivacious and the characters must take the consequences of their actions seriously. There is a pirate-like energy and roister to the action but this does not lead to childishness or superficiality. The characters provoke an emotional response and clearly change and mature as the result of their experiences. The conclusion of the novel suggests that a sequel (and perhaps more) would be possible and, if that is the case, I would be happy to read that too.