It could be argued that it was an act of kindness for Miguel de Ruyter to rescue the sole survivor of the unknown spaceship which exploded even as he approached it, presumed to have been destroyed by an imbalance in its Conjoiner drive, had it not been that his immediate concern was to stop it broadcasting a distress signal which might alert others to the presence of life in the system or that his mission had been to destroy the ship and make it appear to be just such an accident.
Returning with her to the colony of Sun Hollow, shielded underground and fearful of discovery by the marauding wolves who slip silently between the stars while watching and listening for any sign of advanced technology which they must seek out and destroy, the woman is a curiosity, toying with de Ruyter even as they play games together to stimulate her mind, but he is unable to counter her moves when she reveals the breadth of her power and it becomes apparent that her rescue was anything other than an unlikely happenstance of deep space.
Returning to the sequence with which he first established himself as a major voice of modern science fiction, Alastair Reynolds returns to Revelation Space with his first novel set in that realm since 2018’s Elysium Fire, a prequel set in the Glitter Band of habitats above Yellowstone in the Epsilon Eridani system, and the first to advance the chronology since 2003’s Absolution Gap, the remnants of the hunted human race and its offshoots now on the run from the wolves in their Inhibitor Phase.
An administrator who must listen to the voices of the thousand lives to whom he is answerable and for whom he is responsible, de Ruyter must think fast but not rush to judgement or decision, either regarding the strange and potentially dangerous guest who has sought him out or in the immediate and long term needs of colony first to survive but also to thrive, their seclusion and isolation leaving them vulnerable with nobody to turn to and nowhere to run should their location be discovered.
A game of chess, of move and countermove, de Ruyter is reticent to lose any pieces, preferring to block rather than sacrifice, whereas the mysterious Glass is willing to upturn the board if it will get her what she wants; unable to take the risk that she will do exactly that he is obliged to join her on her hidden ship, Scythe, on a journey to the Rust Band, ruined remains of the Glitter Band, across the oceans of a Pattern Juggler world and through the surface of a star to the depths of an ice giant in pursuit of a weapon which can defeat the Inhibitors.
“For all they have done to us, for all they have brought us to the whimpering edge of annihilation, they’re not invulnerable,” Glass promises: “We can kill them, and we shall.” Inevitably, there is a cost; where the Inhibitors are automatons indifferent to the civilisations they have exterminated down the eons, the crew of Scythe count every loss, many of them unavoidable in a war against an overwhelming enemy, at each stage the best they can aim for “the least-bad option.”
De Ruyter and Glass a pair of broken monsters on a quest of glorious but necessary madness, Inhibitor Phase delves more deeply than any of Reynolds previous stories into the Pattern Jugglers, floating vegetable masses able to store personalities and memories then imprint them on swimmers who venture into their oceans even as they peel open the minds of their new visitors and their tangled, misrepresented lives.
Paralleling some aspects of Chasm City, the previous novel set on Yellowstone, De Ruyter is forced to recall his suppressed past as he is required to access skills long neglected and forgotten, and although the novel can be read alone there is continuity beyond the setting, from the Ninecats of the Swinehouse which resemble the technology of the Whiphounds of the Glitter Band’s Prefects to the re-emergence of familiar faces, some greatly aged, one echoing from the opening chapters of Revelation Space though the reveal of their identity is as clouded as ancient ice.
Operating with calculated stealth, Inhibitor Phase is less epic than the previous novels of the sequence but conversely where previously the horror has been in the abstractions of the decaying vessels infected with the Melding Plague here the Swine Queen and her brethren are of another order, wearing the faces of their victims as gas masks as they negotiate the surrender of a prized sentient hyperpig for the butcher’s block.
Inhibitor Space dark and cold but far from empty, hope is tenuous and fleeting but for the first time in the long, slow war against the wolves it seems real, and in such moments an act of kindness or benevolence is moving and significant out of proportion of the deed itself, and while the novel is self-contained and Reynolds has given no indication, concluding at a turning point the novel could serve as the first act of the next phase of the saga.