Eversion

Book cover: Eversion - Alastair ReynoldsAn arrogant foreigner funds an expedition north – or perhaps south – or maybe out – to find a mysterious Edifice that appears on no charts. As questions gather about what happened to the first ship to find it, the expedition’s doctor begins to recall events his crewmates assure him haven’t happened…

Eversion is a new stand-alone novel by Alastair Reynolds billed as an SFnal Gothic thriller set in cold climates, with hints of parallel timelines or a locked time loop. I would characterise it as an homage to classic and pulp adventure fiction with an SFnal twist; more steampunk than Gothic although it is often creepy, embracing elements of psychological and physical horror. The result is a neat puzzle box of a narrative, but if – like me – you don’t get a lot of mileage out of the setting and influences it so adeptly channels, you may not find it particularly engaging either.

We join Doctor Silas Coade aboard the fifth-rate sloop Demeter, sailing north up the Norwegian coast in search of an uncharted fissure in the cliffs that conceals a lagoon. The expedition has been sponsored by arrogant Topolsky, a wealthy Russian with an expansive ego and a disdain for the sound of others’ voices. There’s a fine old-fashioned tone to the prose, capturing the opium-sniffing doctor’s manner and class; and I enjoyed that just as Coade talks down to affable midshipman Mortlock, he gets his own intellectual ass handed to him by smug Milady Cossile, the only woman aboard.

Coade is disarmingly honest with himself. He concedes he has an opium habit that he conceals from the crew and admits that his desire to turn for home makes him a coward. Yet he takes a quiet pride that he has been up to the medical challenges of the expedition so far – for he is only an assistant surgeon, saving costs for Topolsky and granting him a chance to test and enhance his skills before settling down safely ashore. In his off-hours, he is writing a fanciful romance of steam-powered vessels and flying machines, which he reads to the officers in an evening. Mortlock and the crew are hanging out for the next chapter; Milady Cossile has nothing but criticism, which she likes to think is constructive, but which is beginning to discourage the doctor. The overall impression is of a mild man who knows where he wishes to end up and is struggling to get there.

Just as I settled into the characters and their relationships, the narrative reset. Doctor Silas Coade is passingly happy with his novel in progress, and the steamship Demeter has made safe passage through the fissure in Patagonian cliffs to find the lagoon – and the imposing Edifice on its shore – that Topolsky assured them awaited. But Topolsky has been selective with the truths he has shared; there is a wreck at the entrance to the Edifice, holding a message as alarming as the Edifice’s architecture is discomforting.

Welcome to Eversion, a haunting adventure that folds itself forward each time disaster strikes, glitching to pick up narrative at a familiar point but with a new setting reflecting Coade’s latest fanciful future. Only a handful of Coade’s companions have names; and only Cossile seems to have an inkling that things are not what they seem, her frustration mounting with each reset.

Once established that Coade is an unreliable narrator, the lure is in trying to solve the puzzle – or, if you’re me, sitting back to enjoy the atmosphere as I wasn’t sufficiently engaged to care what was ‘really’ happening. Topolsky’s fissure is stressfully claustrophobic in every transit. One expedition stares long and hard into the horror of an endless fall. The Edifice is always hard to look at and impossible to navigate. I had the most fun with Eversion when it leaned into Aliens rather than Jules Verne, with finger marks gouged into the floor and scrawled notes indicating that something had come out of the impossible architecture to claim the previous expedition.

It’s a good two-thirds of the book – which means a great number of iterations of the same story clad in new clothes (more fun if you enjoy the body of work it nods to) – before Coade finally submits to Ada Cossile’s urging to grasp the nettle of their true situation. The final act focuses on their attempt to extract themselves from their actual predicament (in spite of further backsliding into Coade’s fancies) and was by far my favourite part of the novel, if arguably the least inspired.

I was aware as I sped through it that this was a narrative I’d enjoy a lot more on screen – a regular reaction to narratives that are broadly entertaining, but that need to distract me from their lack of dimension with a bit of tinsel. That said, I had to admire the panache with which it embraces its influences (even those that make my eyes roll) – and for the unexpectedly touching pay-off. Eversion is well-executed adventure from an author who knows his craft and it will appeal a great deal more to readers who enjoy steampunk settings and pulp vibes more than I do.

I received a free advance copy from the author. This did not influence the content of my review.

EVERSION is now available in paperback from Orbit Books, and in audio, digital or hardback from Gollancz.