At the heart of every space epic, the really good ones anyway, there has to be a thread of vibrant, affecting humanity.
Being taken to strange and exotic worlds in the midst of enticing galaxies far beyond the banality of 21st century day-to-day life is a compelling reason to read many space operatic novels but without fully-realised people at the heart of these worlds, they are often little more than impressively-imagined constructs bereft of heart and soul.
Alastair Reynolds is one writer who understands that jaw-droppingly good worldbuilding is nowhere near as valuable without the people who give it life, an appreciation that infuses every last page of Revenger, the first in the Revenger Universe trilogy which also includes 2019’s Shadow Captain and this year’s upcoming final instalment Bone Silence.
Reynolds begins as he means to go on in Revenger, introducing us to sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness, two older teenage daughters of relative privilege on the small but pleasant planet of Mazarile, one of the 20,000 human-settled planets in an area of the galaxy known as The Congregation.
These worlds are a beguiling mix of steampunk-ish early-twentieth century aesthetics and values and advanced technology, much of it gleaned in some form or another from “baubles”, planets dotted right across the Congregation and the Empty as it is known which are protected by planetary shields and contain a wealth of technology from earlier “occupations”, eras in which humanity and aliens have risen and fallen, leaving behind a treasure trove of extremely useful artefacts.
The current occupation, of which the Ness girls and their conservative father are a part, has officially been around for 1800 years but anecdotal evidence suggests has been around far longer.
It is as doomed as any other occupation to eventual demise but for now is vibrant and alive, save for occasional economic crises such as Black Shatterday in which the quoins that underpin the economy fall precipitously in value, despite the financial ministrations of the aliens such as the Crawlies and the Clackers that administer the banks (humanity it seems does none too well with fiscal management).
“Mazarile had been our world, our universe, all we’d ever known. We’d read of other places in the Book of Worlds, caught glints of them in the night, seen pictures and moving scenes throw onto our world by Paladin, heard Father mutter their names as he read the financial pages, but none of it was preparation for this.
Mazarile was tiny.” (P. 30)
Worldbuilding-wise Reynolds, like Peter F. Hamilton, is a master, adept at conjuring up a place and time that feels real and possible, one in which humanity has long ago taken to the stars with any hint of our origins lost to the eons.
It is a seductively authentic place in which to place a gripping tale of coming-of-age adventure and revenge and Reynolds make full, arresting use of it as Adrana convinces younger sister Arafura aka Fura to sign on with the captain of a ship who can show them the galaxy and bring them considerable fortune, the kind that can save their well-regarded family from bankruptcy.
Adrana long the rebel and the one who wants to break the chains that bind her to Mazarile has to work hard to convince Fura who go along with her plans and though she feels great disquiet, she acquiesces, signing on with her persuasive sister as a Bone Reader – they send and receive messages using alien devices known as “Bones” resumed from the baubles; each ship has one and they act as both a warning system and a signaller of scavenging opportunity – with Captain Rackamore and his crew.
Revenger is an impressively clever novel that begins simply enough, or so you think, as a “fuck you” coming of age tale but which quickly becomes far, far more as the Ness girls realise that life is a good deal more complicated and messy than their sheltered upbringing had led them to believe.
Granted, they had spent much of their lives reading up on adventuring in space and dreaming of what it must be like to let loose the bonds of planetary gravity, but being in the middle of it all, and being part of a crew that get along but are there for the quoin and the freedom it brings, is literally worlds apart from being on Mazarile.
As events unfold, Fura, who becomes the narrative and emotional focus of Revenger as she grows up very fast and discovers she likes becoming someone she never envisaged herself being, and to a lesser extent Adrana discover that what you think life will be and what it ends up being are two shockingly wholly different things.
Watching Fura in particular grow up against a backdrop of exotic bauble openings but also the danger and intrigue that comes with it is thrillingly immersive, largely because Reynolds never once loses sight, even in the midst of some full-on action and adventure, that people lie and their hopes and dreams, and yes thirst for revenge, lie at the heart of the story.
Thus while Rackamore and the crew are out seeking fortune aplenty, all while trying to evade the attention of cruelly avaricious pirateer Bosa Sennen, and dealing with the ups and downs of the certain but potentially rewarding life they lead, people are dying, losing friends and fortunes and grappling with a galaxy that promises a great deal but can rob you of the same in very short order.
It’s wondrously engaging and so very real, lending the captivating otherworldliness of Revenger a vibrantly real humanity that makes the adventuresome nature of its story feel affecting and moving in a way that keeps you thoroughly invested through its 400-plus page length.
“But I had no intention of running. I’d reached an acceptance of my fate. My father could do what he liked, but in three months I’d be a legal adult, with all the same rights and responsibilities as Adrana. Now, three months was a terribly long time to leave Adrana at the mercy of Bosa Sennen, but finding her again was always going to take time, and a little delay wouldn’t necessarily hurt. It would give me time to over my tracks a bit; to make sure I really had a plan that could hold lungstuff. I was going to have to be sly and resourceful, and sometimes you had to let people think they’d won when in fact they hadn’t.” (P. 204)
Reynolds crafts space opera as it ought to be.
Rich, expansive, inventive and beyond anything we have a hope of experience in the present, a book like Revenger reminds us still that even in a far-flung future, humanity is as flawed and promising in equal measure as ever.
So, we get the thrill of imagining a galaxy in which long-buried and forgotten technologies are unearthed from cloaked planets that only open every so often – sometimes hundreds of years separate these openings – and aliens and humanity mix with relaxed acceptance, but we also can appreciate that this is no utopian future and that the very worst and the very best of us have found a way to make the journey to a time in which anything is possible but our feet are still made with the same type of heavy, limited clay of old.
Humanity and future possibility combine excitingly in Revenger which never drops off the pace in its full speed ahead storytelling while never once sacrificing one iota of the rich, grounded humanity at its stake, a deftly-delivered mix that ensures you are are thrilled, shocked, nervous and delighted as the Ness sisters at what waits in store for you.