A decade and a half into his career as a novelist of epic tomes of hard science fiction, the latest adventure from the pen of former astronomer Alastair Reynolds is as much a departure from expectation as it is for sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness from their comfort zone on Mazarile where they live with their father and their robot servant Paladin and have grown weary of the intrusive visits of the hated Doctor Morcenx.
Adrana, older by a year and targeted by Doctor Morcenx for her rebellious streak, encourages Fura on an unsupervised excursion to Neural Alley, but unbeknownst to her this is the first step in a larger plan which Adrana already had in mind but has not shared. A visit to Madame Granity to test their aptitude is not simply an interesting diversion, a whimsy, it is a prelude to making a bid for employment aboard a ship.
With their talent to become Sympathetic confirmed it is suggested they could find employment with Captain Pol Rackamore of the Monetta’s Mourn, a sunjammer docked at the port of Hadramaw. At first sight the vessel resembles a bony, poisonous, bad-tempered fish but Adrana and Fura board her and head out into the Congregation, more than ten thousand occupied worlds, sphereworlds like Mazarile but also wheelworlds, spindleworlds, brittleworlds, laceworlds, and there they will learn what it is to work for a living reading bones and that the dangers of space are more than cold vacuum.
The surprises they find are equalled by those for the reader: while it is not unusual for Reynolds to feature female leads in his books – Revelation Space, Pushing Ice, the Poseidon’s Children trilogy – it’s unusual for them to be teenagers, and combined with unexpectedly pulpy tone of the novel it makes for an atypical experience, almost a step into the burgeoning young adult market, the prose correspondingly circumspect around the worst of the frequent violence, though one which is hugely enjoyable and carries hints of a much wider universe beyond the pages, full of places to see – for the rich, at least.
The influences are as diverse as the alien technologies of different eras scavenged from within the baubles, sealed worlds whose semi-predictable openings allow brief passages within but whose vagaries can leave those unprepared trapped, oppressive environments where equipment malfunctions which remind of the shifting geography of Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves, while the complex stratified society of the civilised worlds and the sense of young women breaking from the constraint of their lives recalls Alan Moore’s Ballad of Halo Jones.
Further back, the mismatched crew of varied expertises recalls Blake’s 7 and very specifically Firefly in the colloquialisms which form their corrupted patter and the references to the Earth lost on Shatterday, and there is much of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway in the uncertainty of whether any expedition will end in glory, disappointment or disaster as they meddle with leftover technologies they cannot comprehend in the hope of getting lucky, but the greatest influence is the call of the high seas.
The sails may be rigged to catch the solar wind rather than terrestrial but Monetta’s Mourn’s purpose harks back to another age, and there is a definite steampunk feel to proceedings though at a far higher tech level than would normally be associated with a genre Reynolds already tweaked and pushed to the limit in Terminal World when he had airships floating over the surface of Mars, but the greatest threat remains piracy, and worst is the dread Bosa Sennen of the Nightjammer.
Come the first attack where many of the crew are killed the loss does not sting as it might had the reader come to know them over a longer passage, and as the narrative jumps from ship to ship the pieces fall into place a little too conveniently, though the less cynical intended readership should be suitably thrilled. This may be described as a standalone novel but there are huge wheels turning in the background as wild yet as carefully charted as the eccentric orbits of any of the worlds of the Congregation as they fall through the Empty and the story is ripe for continuation; whether Reynolds will revisit them, however, is as unpredictable as the wind.