Revenger: Shadow Captain

Book cover: Shadow Captain - Alastair Reynolds (a spaceship silhouetted against a penumbra)The Ness sisters survived Bosa Sennen, but it’s less easy to shake her legacy: her obsessions with quoins and Occupations, not to mention a Congregation of enemies convinced that any who sail aboard the Nightjammer must be her heirs…

We left Fura Ness at the end of Revenger writing her True and Accurate Testimony in blood on the skin of her enemies (and if that didn’t unnerve you, it should have done). Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover Shadow Captain was narrated by Adrana – given Fura urged to tell her side of the story – but it took me by surprise all the same. At least she’s not skinning the dead to record it.

It’s a few weeks or months later. Adrana has shaken Bosa Sennen’s conditioning, and Fura is the implicit – if not unchallenged – captain of the Revenger. But the tiny crew has a massive problem: the Revenger is instantly recognisable as Bosa Sennen’s iconic craft. What other ship has black sails and is crewed by the dead (how did I miss that in book one? I’m ashamed of myself) and has the bodies of its enemies nailed to its hull? Worse, Bosa’s reputation is such that it would be just like Bosa Sennen to claim that the Nightjammer was being sailed by a prize crew under the command of two inexperienced teenage girls who had somehow defeated her…

After all, how likely is their story?

One of my favourite aspects of Shadow Captain is the continuous probing of whether the Ness sisters really did defeat Bosa Sennen. Certainly, they killed her. But Bosa Sennen was an idea, a personality, a collection of traits and obsessions grafted from one person to the next. They killed Illyria Rackamore, who subjected Adrana to torture and psychological conditioning to reshape her instincts and ethics; had she completed the process, Adrana would have become Bosa Sennen in her turn (and oh, my dark curious heart is still picking at that; Illyria wasn’t old enough to need an heir. Think about it). Released from Bosa’s kindness room (yes, I’m shuddering too), Adrana has recovered and regained her sense of self, but she is not unmarked.

But in order to defeat Bosa Sennen, Arafura wilfully reshaped herself: visibly, cutting off her arm and embracing the bioluminescent ‘glowy’ infection that will make her increasingly paranoid and erratic; and ethically, leaving behind soft-hearted Arafura’s ethics to embrace Fura’s unforgiving, results-driven logic. If we need this, then we must do that. The manner in which she recorded her Testimony when she found herself without paper or pen is just the start…

Did the Ness sisters defeat Bosa Sennen, or have they simply given her a new shape?

This was the through line of Shadow Captain for me, and it kept me fascinated through a meandering story. This is very much a middle book: lots of set-up, some intriguing developments, but fairly little progress.

We join the Revenger in need of resupply, and unable to simply dock at the closest planet without being fired upon as the Nightjammer. Ever-reliable Prozor knows of a bauble where Pol Rackamore had a fuel dump; and Bosa’s records – if they can unencrypt them – hold the location of her secret stash of quoins. The trip into the bauble is a brilliantly atmospheric slice of space horror – full on goosebumps and squeaking. Reynolds is having far too much fun weaving well-trodden space tropes into this series, and I for one am enjoying it enormously.

The escapade also neatly illustrates how little trust now exists between the two sisters. Fura is secretive and manipulative; and Adrana isn’t alone in being mildly resentful of Fura’s assumption of command. But Adrana has secrets of her own – and is spying on her sister to boot. It makes for a delicate relationship, all tension and sharp edges, which kept me intrigued. I wasn’t sure whether Adrana was an unreliable narrator, or whether both sisters were as bad as each other; but I was fascinated by their tacit rivalry and fragile alliance.

Fleeing for their lives without the fuel they came for, matters go from bad to worse when they pick up a tail. In trying to evade it, they ‘accidentally’ (really, Fura? REALLY? For what it’s worth, yes, I really think so) commit a crime that makes them look more like Bosa and the Nightjammer than ever. They assume paper-thin disguises to make port at a far-flung wheel world, only to find themselves at the uncertain mercy of a local criminal kingpin.

The sojourn on Wheel Strizzardy is episode of the week material, feeding detail (some alarming) into the larger plot and reconfiguring the crew, but mostly feeling like it’s putting pieces into position for later. It’s not until the Revenger leaves port that the bigger questions swing back into focus: why was Bosa obsessed with what caused Occupations to succeed or fail; and do quoins really hold the souls of the dead as she believed?

If it had felt like Shadow Captain was treading water, the final act went a long way to making it all worthwhile: or more to the point, to ensuring I am on tenterhooks for the next instalment and gaining an extra half star for sheer volume of the squeeing it provoked. I can’t wait to see where the Revenger and her crew sail next…


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.