Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

My brother and I have a rule: everything is made infinitely cooler by the addition of pirates.  (Or ninjas.  Or both, in the case of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World.)  Revenger, the new Alastair Reynolds novel (out next week, review copy from Gollancz) proves that rule.

Arafura Ness is a teenage girl growing up on the backwater planet of Mazarile, with her widowed father and her wayward older sister, Adrana.  At Adrana’s urging, Fura runs away from her father at a dull drinks party, kicking off a chain of events that finds her signing up to join the crew of the sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn.  Both Arafura and Adrana have the signs of being talented bone-readers, able to use the skulls of an ancient and extinct race for instantaneous communication across space.  It’s a rare talent, and one that only manifests in the young.

Under Captain Rackamore, the crew of the Monetta’s Mourn are treasure-hunters, making dangerous raids on so-called baubles.  These are worlds that are the remnants of previous civilisations, many thousands of years old, that are protected by force-fields that only open briefly every now and then.  Society depends on the technology that can be salvaged from the baubles by crews like Captain Rackamore’s.  It’s a business that has the potential to make a crew incredibly rich, but it’s also dangerous work.  Accidents are common and crews can be left injured or trapped on baubles whose force-fields close unexpectedly early.  During one such expedition, the ship is attacked by the near-mythical pirate captain Bosa Sennen and her ship the Nightjammer.  Adrana is captured, and most of the crew are massacred.  Only Arafura and the gruff Prozor survive.

Arafura is hell-bent on rescuing her sister and avenging the murdered crew.  With terrifyingly single-minded determination she hatches a plan to get her sister back.  It’s one that involves her getting a berth on a new ship, and putting the lives of the entire crew at risk.  One of the strengths of Revenger is seeing how Arafura changes from a naive teenage girl who is easily swayed by her strong-willed sister into a ruthless, hardened space-farer.  In many ways, she becomes just as corrupted as any member of Bosa Sennen’s brainwashed crew.

The picture Revenger paints of a civilisation living in the ruins and ashes of its predecessors, trying to piece together the past, is a compelling one.  One of my favourite sequences is early on in the novel, when Arafura is introduced to Captain Rack’s library, painstakingly assembled over his lifetime.  He pulls out a slab of opaque, milky glass which he tells her is a book, but nobody can read it or make it work.  But occasionally, during an electrical storm words flicker across its surface before disappearing again.

But most of all, Revenger is a cracking adventure story full of buried treasure, daring escapes and hard-won friendships. It’s glorious, unashamed fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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