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.

Ironclads – a crash course introduction to a dystopian world

Publisher: Solaris

RRP: £19.99

Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky

Published:  2017-11-02

Ironclads front cover, 2017, by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Ironclads, 2017, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Scions have no limits. Scions do not die. And Scions do not disappear.

Sergeant Ted Regan has a problem. A son of one of the great corporate families, a Scion, has gone missing at the front. He should have been protected by his Ironclad — the lethal battle suits that make the Scions masters of war — but something has gone catastrophically wrong.

Now Regan and his men, ill equipped and demoralized, must go behind enemy lines, find the missing Scion, and uncover how his suit failed. Is there a new Ironclad-killer out there? And how are common soldiers lacking the protection afforded the rich supposed to survive the battlefield tomorrow?

In Ironclads, Adrian Tchaikovsky follows up his 2016 Arthur C. Clarke award for Children of Time with a fast-paced but thoughtful novella. It examines a similar theme from his Guns of the Dawn work, namely the fights ordinary people find themselves dragged into due to wider, political machinations. On the surface, Ironclads appears to be an updated take on a familiar tale; a group of army grunt underdogs sent on a dangerous rescue mission to a perilous land to save some hapless, stranded soul. However, this is less Saving Private Ryan and more Dirty Dozen as the team fight against increasingly outlandish mechanical enemies (and each other) in order to survive. What elevates it is the focus upon the everyday people presented throughout the story’s commentary against class barriers and status.

Told in first person, the reader is guided by Ted Regan, a soldier in a time of conflict between the US and Sweden, with Finland and Russia wading in for good measure. However, ordinary men like him now serve as mere cannon fodder, whilst the rich play at war in near-indestructible suits of armour emblazoned with their company’s logo. The book quickly highlights that this is a world where the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically; the rich, favoured sons never step outside their compounds without either civilian or battle-ready Ironclad suits, whilst the poor take a reverential approach to these new, corporate-sponsored gods. Wars are fought by business men, not countries.

Tchaikovsky’s vivid use of language brings to life the world we have been dropped into. His colourful descriptions of an England post-Brexit take some satirical swipes at the UK’s uncertain situation, and certainly won’t ease the fears of Remainers. Overall, Ironclads’ relevance to the current political climate is clear, painting a future where Trump-style values have won out, where money and big business will always win. The hints at the lot of women in this brave new world, especially women of colour, are slight but chilling, pointing to a society regressing even as it advances technologically.

Yet, this is still an enjoyable, action-filled and just plain fun novella, with a set of likeable and diverse characters. The reader might glimpse the skeletons of the archetypes beneath now and again, but they are fleshed out through the occasionally sardonic narration, allowing the reader to start caring about what happens to this dysfunctional group of misfits. The team’s relationships are predictable but believable, be they growing, begrudging trust, to familial squabbling belying a deeper camaraderie. The characterisation of Regan sometimes dips too far into the beleaguered everyman persona to make a strong individual impression, but the conversational style of Regan’s narration also injects some droll and much-needed humour into the proceedings.

Whilst affable enough, the male characters are upstaged by their female counterparts time and again. It is interesting that, in a world seemingly run by men, it is the women who take control of the plot at decisive points. The characterisation of the female soldiers and fighters runs the risk of leaning towards what has now become the “strong woman” cliché, but they are driven by their own motivations. Tchaikovsky manages to steer just clear of formulaic portrayals – yes, these women are strong, but this doesn’t preclude vulnerability, either.

The story leaps from one action set-piece to another, with some neat sci-fi nods littered throughout. Ghost in The Shell’s Tachikomas come to mind as the team meet lethal, near-sentient AI droid units, some of which draw their design inspiration from the Martian fighting machines in War of the Worlds. The book’s venture into other sci-fi aspects are less convincing. Despite Tchaikovsky’s careful establishment of a worryingly possible future, the depiction of the terrifying Finnish fighters jeopardises the reader’s suspension of disbelief. However, it ultimately adds to the absurd and desperate situation Regan and his group find themselves in.

In Ironclads, Tchaikovsky gives the reader a crash course introduction to a progressively dystopian world where worship of the rich has reached even more alarming levels. At times, the sci-fi elements teeter towards less believable fantasy, threatening to undermine its own grounded, polemical tone, but Tchaikovsky helms this in by focusing upon the humans trying to survive in a world indifferent to their worth. This depiction of humans without agency over their own lives, subject to the whims of those with power, is what ultimately gives Ironclads its heart.