Revenger – an actual, proper adventure

Author: Alastair Reynolds

Publisher: Gollancz

Publish Date: 2017-05-18

RRP: £8.99 (paperback)

Revenger front cover, 2017, by Alastair Reynolds
Revenger, 2017, by Alastair Reynolds

The galaxy has seen great empires rise and fall. Planets have shattered and been remade. Amongst the ruins of alien civilisations, building our own from the rubble, humanity still thrives.

And there are vast fortunes to be made, if you know where to find them…

Captain Rackamore and his crew do. It’s their business to find the tiny, enigmatic worlds which have been hidden away, booby-trapped, surrounded with layers of protection—and to crack them open for the ancient relics and barely-remembered technologies inside. But while they ply their risky trade with integrity, not everyone is so scrupulous.

Adrana and Fura Ness are the newest members of Rackamore’s crew, signed on to save their family from bankruptcy. Only Rackamore has enemies, and there might be more waiting for them in space than adventure and fortune…

Revenger is initially sold as a “swashbuckling adventure” according to its front cover quotes, a space romp with hints of Firefly about it. It is easy to see why: Arafura Ness, led by her daring sister, Adrana, unwillingly seeks adventure and fortune aboard a ship with a quirky crew of characters. Captain Rackamore isn’t exactly Mal Reynolds, but he has the same audacious nature and, much like Firefly, Revenger contains some brutal, surprising moments amongst the initial witty asides and general racing through space.

This is an actual, proper adventure where the plot twists and turns, leading the reader down all sorts of paths. The universe is an interesting take on our future, a mix of Victoriana expeditionary zeal with a sci-fi aesthetic. The dialogue is littered with colloquialisms which evoke the age of pirates, not an accident as ships resplendent with glowing sails race from one buried treasure to another. Just swap the open sea for the swirling skies, and islands for “baubles”. The slang used helps to create an “otherness” to this universe, but it’s simple enough to decode it without causing headaches; Clockwork Orange or The Quantum Thief, this is not.

Reynolds drops the reader into this universe and carefully builds its structure as we follow Arafura’s reluctant plunge into a new life. There is no heavy exposition, and the reveals are drip-fed to us, with some pleasing references back to our current era. The pace is tense, with healthy dollops of suspense, as long moments of calm or planning often burst into frenetic action. This is the tale of how Arafura Ness grows as a person, with all its ups and downs, and we are along for the enjoyable ride. What’s most interesting about Revenger is that, even towards the end, the reader is not entirely sure just what Arafura Ness is becoming.

This is a first person narrative, and thus we learn most about our narrator, Arafura. It invariably means that we do not receive as much insight into the other characters, so they can feel a little thin at times, reduced down to familiar types: well-meaning but clueless father; bitter crewmate with a heart of gold; vicious, relentless bounty hunter, and so on. However, this is the price paid to follow Arafura’s personal journey. It’s a well-realised one, too, with believable character development as Arafura navigates the Empty.

What’s most striking is the relationship between Arafura and Adrana because it’s just so convincing. There’s sisterly love tinged with the need to compete, pride fighting envy at every step. It’s complicated, and lays a solid foundation for Arafura’s path. It is also refreshing to see a female protagonist thrown against insurmountable odds, without having the background distraction of which love-interest to pick. Arafura is driven and seeing what she is willing to sacrifice makes her endlessly fascinating.

Unfortunately, there are one or two issues. Whilst the plot can be shocking and heart-breaking, it can also be somewhat predictable in other places. It is hard not to see some twists coming, and these stand out sharply against the other (genuinely surprising) events. Some plot details are, conversely, thrown in with little explanation. The intent may have been to give a sense that the story isn’t quite over, though Revenger does have a satisfying conclusion. A lot of threads are left dangling, but this makes sense as Reynolds has stated he is doing a follow-up in what may become a series.

In Arafura Ness, Reynolds has created a compelling character and placed her within a universe full of wonder, if one tempered with hard choices and brutality. While it draws in tropes common to other space opera stories, Revenger soon sheds these borrowed clothes and becomes its own tale, making a singular impression upon the reader. However, it also feels like the start of something more, with the intricate history of this universe only hinted at within this book; a universe to which the reader will want to return.

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