Book cover: Revenger - Alastair Reynolds (a spaceship, black on black)Humanity is scattered across the hundreds of worlds of the Congregation, picking through the locked baubles of previous Occupations to steal their lost technologies. Few have the courage to venture into that darkness. But the Ness sisters are keen to escape their controlled lives on Mazarile, and they have no idea what evils lurk in the Empty…

Revenger is my first venture into the realms of Alastair Reynolds and it can consider its job done: I now want to read his entire back catalogue (although I’ve been warned Revenger is atypical). We meet the Ness sisters – feisty, rebellious Adrana and her younger, bookish, sister Arafura – in the Hall of History on Mazarile, sneering at the unpleasant Doctor Morcenx.

It’s one of those openings that could have resulted in a fast exist stage left, pursued by the sound of my angry feminist shrieking as Morcenx promptly describes the Ness sisters ‘fine specimens’ – and offers them sweets (later, another creepy older man calls them ‘the lovelies’). With skin crawling and hackles well and truly raised, I gritted my teeth and decided I’d give it at least a chapter. My reading notes for the first chapter are simply repeated ‘eeeeeeeeeew’s.

…but I needn’t have worried. We’re meant to hate Morcenx (and later Quindar). He’s almost a caricature – described as greasy, humming ‘as if his own thoughts needed blacking out’ (which, given his borderline predatory behaviour around teenage girls, they likely do). Adrana sees him for what he is, setting the template for the rest of the book: unacceptable behaviours (including Adrana’s; she has an unforgivable attitude towards robots) are – mostly – called out. But let’s hold that thought for later.

Although the early chapters are a little forced to get the girls aboard the Monetta’s Mourn, I decided to just go with it. There is no context for Arafura’s change of heart from biddable daughter in the Hall of History to runaway eagerly accepting a place on a sunjammer; it just seems convenient to the plot. It’s halfway through the book before we find out enough about her childhood that it becomes obvious that Rack’s offer would have been irresistible.

…and besides, SUNJAMMER. Yes, this is hand-wavey space opera of the sort I love best, all glorious imagery and broad horizons. The ships have sails to catch the photon winds, and ion drives to get them far enough from a gravity well to be able to take advantage of them. The set-up (night time shrieks aboard the Monetta’s Mourn; a hardened crew tight-knit by past tragedies they won’t speak of) is practically Gothic, but the aesthetic is essentially steampunk. Even the worlds are rarely planets. Some are engineered by past civilisations, tubes and spheres and rings; others – ‘baubles’ – are asteroids or planets that are shrouded in protective fields to keep looters (and prospective residents) at bay.

“We’re speaking of an alien technology none of us properly understand. Just because we use it doesn’t mean we know it.”

The world-building kicks in fast. There’s the odd unwieldy infodump (Arafura’s early meetings with Rackamore are a case in point), but this is a novel that mostly wants to tantalise, throwing out tidbits here and there. By the time it began to spin out the technology of baubles and ship-to-ship communication via alien skulls, I was hooked.

Even the language comes at you sideways, Arafura’s narration – in spite of her education – peppered with odd anachronisms and contrived adjectives. While this eventually makes sense, it felt alternately slightly forced or Firefly-esque depending on how forgiving I was feeling.

And it wasn’t long before I was feeling very forgiving indeed. While I have a few minor niggles (Adrana is very inconsistent; a few things are a little too convenient; the language never does get to feel natural), I was swept away by the plot once it hit full speed. It relentlessly delivers (with interest) on ideas that are set out early on; there’s no such thing as extraneous detail. This could make it feel telegraphed, but it’s beautifully choreographed so instead I found it incredibly satisfying.

SPOILER (mouse over to read)

Case in point: Paladin the robot. Nothing went to waste; the set-up was perfect and the pay-off was sheer heroism. I ended up more emotionally invested in his story than any other (the rest was entertainment; Paladin was all tragic nobility that ripped me to shreds).

But let’s get back to that thought about how Revenger acknowledges and judges bad behaviour. Because this is a three-act story in which a naive young woman loses her sister, loses her liberty and is forced to transform into a badass to seek retribution. Sure, it’s a story arc we’ve seen a million times at the movies. What makes Revenger unusual is that the protagonist is a teenage girl; and that while it doesn’t disapprove of her actions outright (that would be odd, given she’s the narrator), it invites the reader to question whether her actions are justifiable.

Arafura is driven by the need to confront fabled Dread Space Pirate Roberts Bosa Sennen. One of the few things that makes Revenger feel like YA is that Bosa only does anything truly awful very late in the game (unlike the person responsible for locking Arafura in a room of books with titles like The Young Person’s Illustrated Omnibus of Fiscal Prudence. Now that’s sadism). While she’s a space pirate who likes to mess with your head, steal your stuff and kill you as an afterthought, she is at least initially shown to kill quickly and cleanly. By the final act, Arafura does – or condones – things that are objectively just as bad in order to pursue her goals.

And she doesn’t feel particularly bad about it.

It’s a classic case of ‘if you stare into the Abyss’ – increasingly, Arafura seems oblivious to what she’s becoming. By the final act, I was wondering whether she would step up and become Bosa herself (or whether it was going to go full Consider Phlebas). I won’t spoil it for you. It makes for a fascinating journey, dark and juicy. While I never liked Arafura, I was delighted by her adventures and fascinated by the setting. There’s an awful lot of scope here for other stories in the future – and I understand that these will follow in due course. Can’t wait.

****1/2