Bosa Sennen is dead; long live Bosa Sennen and all who sail under her catchcloth, her former vessel known variously as Dame Scarlet or Nightjammer now renamed Revenger and crewed by the survivors of those ships which Sennen had previously targeted and who eventually came to be her downfall, chief among them the sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness.
When they left Mazarile, their home sphereworld in one of the rings of the Congregation closer to the Old Sun, they had sought adventure and fortune rather than to become the victims then the vanquisher of the most notorious space pirate, but now in possession of that spike-hulled monstrosity which slips silently beyond in the outer Frost Margins on sails as black and cold as vacuum they find Sennen’s reputation still hangs over them.
Shadow Captain is Alastair Reynolds’ sequel to his 2016 novel Revenger which introduced the Ness sisters, teenagers confirmed as Sympathetic who could read the auguries of the ancient bones of the previous alien occupation of the Congregation, an enviable skill with which they bought their way first to space and then into danger.
Mistresses of their own ship they may be, but they are far from masters of their fate, low on fuel and provisions and unable to approach any of the civilised worlds where they will likely be fired upon before they can even approach to make their appeal for clemency and reward as the killers of Bosa Sennen. As lonely as it is beyond the 37th processional, they must instead take their chances on the distant bauble known as Rumbler if they are to keep flying.
Where Revenger‘s explorations recalled Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves here it is H P Lovecraft‘s At the Mountains of Madness which springs horrifically to mind as the expedition descends beneath the upper levels of a world which may be populated by cybernetic zombies, not so nice as the name “twinkle-head” implies, as the timer counts down on the shields which will seal the surface and trap them inside.
Time and merciless circumstance having driven a wedge between the sisters, they are no longer the same girls who grew up together in cloistered privilege on Mazarile; Fura lives in both the shadow of her sister who rescued her and the lingering influence of Sennen who attempted to subvert her very being, and now they and their crew must keep to the shadows of the vast disc of the Congregation in order to survive.
A novel of space pirates with a dash of steampunk and Verne in the hydraulics and the rigging, the equipment and instrumentation of blown glass and fractured bone riddled with flickering circuitry, Reynolds revisits some of the themes of his earlier novel Chasm City in the fearful belief that there is another vessel following unseen in the dark, while Mister Glimmery, volatile crime boss of Wheel Strizzardy, recalls a similar character in Terminal World.
Ashore on that backwater wheelworld for the longest part of the narrative, Shadow Captain is more static than its predecessor but there is every indication that this is only a pause before the Revenger runs further and faster than it has ever done before in the forthcoming Bone Silence, deeper out in search of answers to the most fundamental questions of the present and former civilisations which have risen and fallen in the recorded history of the Congregation as Adrana hesitantly finds common ground with Fura as she embraces her own obsessions.