If there is one thing Merlin cannot help but do, it is meddle. He has a purpose, a task, albeit one which is abstract: to find a legendary weapon which he is convinced exists and obtain it in order to help his people defeat the Huskers in a war which has played out across systems and the ages. The trouble is, he has no idea where it is, and he does tend to get sidetracked, as is the case when he is pressed to assist with the Iron Tactician.
The fourth of Alastair Reynolds‘ stories to feature the wandering deep space vagabond-cum-adventurer following Merlin’s Gun and Hideaway, collected in Zima Blue, and more recently in Minla’s Flowers, collected in Beyond the Aquila Rift, it opens as a ghost story, a derelict hulk floating off the spaceways far from the relative safety of the Cohort.
Beyond the point where any rescue mission might have been attempted, the battered remains of the swallowship Shrike indicates that it fell prey to Huskers long ago, the extent and the age of the damage indicating the possibility of survivors unlikely anyhow, but Merlin boards it in hopes he might still find useful information in the databanks to aid in his continuing search for the weapon.
Instead what he finds is Teal, sole survivor in the last functioning frostwatch cabinet, and she is none too pleased to meet her notorious rescuer whom the stories describe as arrogant, and they are not wrong, but with Tyrant‘s syrinx damaged and failing a replacement is needed and Teal knows a system which has one – or at least had one when she last visited it.
Like Reynolds‘ recent novel Revenger, this is a universe built on the ruins of a previous more advanced civilisation long gone, filled with rumours of hidden treasures remaining if those seeking know where to look. Merlin is one of the few able to traverse the Waynet, but the price for the replacement syrinx without which he will be stranded is his cooperation in the retrieval of another war machine, the stolen battle computer known as the Iron Tactician.
A brief read at less than a hundred pages with which NewCon Press recently launched their novella range, it is a welcome return for Merlin even if he does once again seem to be stumbling into a situation where he manages to make things a lot worse than they originally were and then find himself picking up the pieces; perhaps the fact that the replacement syrinx was held in a secret base inside a volcano was insufficient to tip him off that Prince Baskin who holds it is not entirely what he presents himself as.
With threads spun from both Merlin’s own past and that of the system in which he and Teal find themselves, the coincidence which allows them to unravel the mystery is perhaps too easy but it is a welcome return for the traveller who in the eighteen years since he was first introduced has never featured in one of Reynolds‘ novels nor moved closer to his goal, but fully able to be read without prior knowledge of the character or his universe, or even Reynolds‘ work, The Iron Tactician is a fine introduction to the interests and peculiarities of both.