Long has Alastair Reynolds taunted me from my bookshelf. I purchased his debut novel, Revelation Space, years ago as a gift to myself. But since I purchased it when I didn’t understand how to handle my to-read list, my paperback copy languished on my shelf, hidden behind the other books I had accrued over the years. But this year I said “no longer shall you wait for my eyes” and I picked up this now genre staple, allowing myself to be amazed.
Dan Sylveste is a man possessed. He alone may have the drive to discover what happened to the Amarantin civilization nine-hundred thousand years ago. Unfortunately, his planet is in rebellion, and they don’t exactly like his style of leadership, and depose him as he is on the brink of a major discovery. Meanwhile, Khouri is a famous assassin who tracks down rich immortals who pay to outrun her. Her status has become so legendary that a woman known only as the Mademoiselle has contracted her to kill Sylveste and stop him from unleashing something truly terrible on the universe.
One of the things I had read countless times about Revelation Space was just how incredibly mean it was, especially the main cast. The characters are self-serving monsters, worlds are unforgiving capitalist hellscapes separated by lightyears, with the ferry-folk being cyborgs who have cut themselves off from humanity through the wonders of relativity. Oh, and they also delighted in selling weapons to planet dwellers, fueling decades if not centuries of war just because. It’s a bleak world, full of competition and ruthless snakes disguised as people. Yet I found it entirely refreshing. I was engrossed in the petty conflicts of these easily despised people. I didn’t quite start to like them, but Reynolds gave me a front seat to their obsessive madness and I couldn’t look away.
Part of this is due to Reynolds’ incredible worldbuilding. He uses the “throw the reader in the deep end” approach and lets the overwhelming amount of context give meaning to the words he has created. It feels like an extrapolated nightmare from the world we live in today (though it was written in the early 2000s). Every system is separated by time and distance, where history happens when you travel between worlds. Cultures are allowed to fester, letting the meanest, most conniving, and richest to gain a near unbreakable stranglehold while solutions to previous problems become irrelevant in the time lag. It unfolds through the entirety of the novel, letting the reader bathe in the cruel universe Reynolds has seen fit to show us. But it’s also populated with interesting aliens that exist on the margins of humanity. It’s filled with a galactic history waiting to be unearthed, even as humanity finds ways to burn itself out. Not to mention, Reynolds seemed to actually have fun with aspects of his world, taking the roll out seriously, but having some good laughs in the process. I will never forget the words “Behold, the marriage gun!”
Another compelling aspect of Reynolds’ writing is his characterization. Every character was interesting, complex and walked the line of amorality. They occasionally did some good, frequently did some bad, but they also felt very human. Each had desires that were marrow deep, but some had the ability to explore those desires, while others were lashed hopelessly to the dreams of the powerful around them. Sylveste was particularly fun to read just because of his incredible obsession with discovering the downfall of the Amarantin civilization in the past, perfectly juxtaposed by his inability to sense a coup against him by one of his right hand people in the present. Volyova and Khouri were excellent characters as well. Volyova had an intensity that frightened me, which bolstered her fierce intelligence and will to fight. Khouri was similarly armed in the brains department, but was far more suspicious of the world she inhabited, constantly playing double agent. Watching the three characters bounce off each other was a real treat.
On top of all that, the story was an incredible ride from start to finish. There were a few fits and starts here and there, with maybe one section that I felt was a little slow, but overall I was compelled to get to the ending. It was packed with action, intrigue, a tiny bit of romance and shitton of truly wild ideas. There were several good reveals that could have propelled a series, but instead it was all in a single book. And while it’s a series, the first book feels like a cohesive distinct object to launch into the rest of the books from. Reading it knowing this was the first novel he published, I’m kind of in awe.
If you’re looking for something bigger in scope that scratches that darker space opera itch, Revelation Space is the way to go. It features all of the stuff Peter F. Hamilton is known for, but digs a little deeper into the psyche of its characters. It builds on its own stakes, ramping up the tension as the story pushes itself to the end. Sure, it’s a little on the meaner side, but it feels lived in. It has problems that can’t be solved by its admittedly powerful characters.
Rating: Revelation Space – 8.5/10