Space Opera Sunday: Bone Silence

Banner: Space opera Sunday (base image - Space by Codex41 @flickr)

The Ness sisters survived Bosa Ness and Wheel Strizzardy. In their search for answers, they accidentally up-ended the Congregation’s economy. Now they must outrun the Revenue men if they are to confirm whether they’ve also doomed all of humanity…

Book cover: Bone Silence - Alastair Reynolds (space ship on a field of purple-blue space)Bone Silence is the closing chapter of the Revenger trilogy, the dark steampunk space opera that marks Alastair Reynolds’s first foray into the young adult market. In a departure from previous volumes, the Ness sisters share the spotlight here: public enemies, but cautious allies and co-captains of the most feared pirate ship in the Congregation.

We rejoin the sisters in search of a new skull for the bone room, without which they are ignorant of what’s going on across the Congregation. The laceworld of Mulgracen is home to fabulously shady people (Mr Darkly’s carefully-crafted truths are a perfect exercise in caveat emptor) and brings the sisters face-to-face with the harsh consequences of their trip to the Miser. They caused the Readjustment – and their actions have ruined people and cost lives.

When the sisters split up to pursue secretive errands, each wrongly assumes the other will acquire the skull. It’s a critical error (and a crucial lesson: stop keeping secrets, girls). While Adrana acquires a new ally who is willing to trade information for safe passage off Mulgracen, she also attracts the attention of the terrifying ‘muddleheads’ and the sisters flee the world an empty bone room. This neat narrative manipulation simultaneously sets up the plot for the novel (get Adrana’s alien passenger to Trevenza Reach before Fura runs out of the medicine keeping the glowy at bay) and forces the sisters’ hand: no longer able to call safely at any port for fear of the muddleheads, their only option is to turn pirate in truth to get what they need.

Matters become even more awkward when a Revenue fleet appears on the horizon (and yes, I was delighted that a series that has gleefully re-crafted so many piratical tropes made the villain of the final book a Revenue man). The chase is on. Revenger must outrun an ambitious young officer with an unsavoury reputation and a startling talent with the bones who is determined to collect the bounty on the Ness sisters’ heads.

Reynolds’s re-imagination of the solar system remains a joy, with its dazzling array of ancient relics and hand-crafted worlds. The sunjammers feel like steampunk space privateers – full of tubing and gaskets, reliant on sails that betray your position as they reflect sunlight and on half-understood alien gubbins that must be coaxed into doing what you need. I remain beguiled by Revenger‘s universe with its salty vernacular, where spacefarers must be hardy, self-sufficient individuals to survive the months of sailing the solar winds through the empty dark.

Yet I felt Bone Silence suffered from uneven pacing. At over 600 pages, Bone Silence is nearly twice the length of the previous Revenger books. At least half of this deals with the extended journey from Mulgracen to Trevenza Reach. Whilst this gives Reynolds time to rebuild the fractured sisterly relationship and show us how much their adventures have changed them, I can’t help but compare it unfavourably to Revenger, which delivered plot and character development in a more streamlined and – for my money – more compelling narrative. At its best, Bone Silence returns to crackling cinematic form (the funeral, Strambli’s transformation) and delivers tense sequences that had me chewing my nails. But at times I wanted to yell at it to just stop faffing and get to the point.

By contrast, Reynolds tries to achieve so much in the final act that Bone Silence ends up feeling like a TV show that got cancelled and had to tie up its plots a season early. There are scores to settle, questions to answer as well as an unexpected right-hand pause to discuss social politics and wealth redistribution (which goes some way to addressing the sisters’ role in the Readjustment). There’s also a sense in which it echoes Revenger (appropriate, given the importance of looping orbits), reintroducing old antagonists and inverting relationships – before revealing one last bauble that must be cracked.

Tying so many threads up neatly is a big ask and the result is not entirely successful. Whilst a key sequence (SPOILER (mouse over to read) the awakening of Trevenza Reach) is so outrageously awesome I literally yelled aloud, some of the big reveals were undermined by flaky observations (note: being an archaeologist isn’t always helpful). The answers begged much bigger questions, popping the lid on the world-building to show how limited our view has been to date. 

In the end, Bone Silence felt like a slightly muddled middle book, revealing ever bigger back stories and hinting at wilder, weirder futures. If it had been, I’d be excited for what future books might hold – a view beyond the Congregation, a return to the Miser, a re-evaluation of humanity’s future (or a confrontation with its fate). But apparently Reynolds is done with the Ness sisters. If so, this is an unsatisfying ending – a fascinating adventure in the end, but one which doesn’t quite do justice to its many intriguing ingredients.

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