Thursday, April 21, 2011

Book Review: Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds

REDEMPTION ARK by Alastair Reynolds is one of those middle-of-a-trilogy books that has both good points and bad points. Is it worth reading? Absolutely. Does it flag and slow down the series? Yes, a bit. Basically it’s like this. The first half is riveting. Everything that happens with the (again) three separate plotlines is wholly interesting and page-turning. It’s the latter half (at least until the last 100 pages or so) that flags under the weight of Reynolds slower writing style. While in the first book I never felt the slow-down. In this second book (and this is upon a re-read of it too) it slows way down for about 250 pages or so. I’ll explain more later.

Note: Minor spoilers for the first book.

The first half of this book reads like REVELATION SPACE did. I had no problems with it and was really enjoying it. The three plotlines: 400-year old Conjoiner Nevil Clavain and his two Conjoiner “allies” Remontoire and Skade are part of a closed council that is aware of the threat that the universe-wide Inhibitor menace (starfaring machine intelligence that stamps out other starfaring cultures and wipes them out as a species). Via a link to future knowledge they have found a new and dangerous propulsion system and have created new ships to escape this menace if need be, en masse. That fact doesn't sit well with the honorable Clavain who fears for the rest of humanity, not just his Conjoiner brethren. Secondly, Storm Bird freighter pilot Antoinette Bax, after dangerously burying her father in a contested planet’s (Tangerine Dream) atmosphere, returns home with a broken ship to her friend and partner Xavier where she is harassed by the police on a daily basis. The third thread reunites us with some of our old friends on Resurgam from the first book. Former assassin Ana Khouri and Ultra pilot of the Nostalgia For Infinity Ilia Volyova. In the sixty years since the events of RS, Khouri has infiltrated the Resurgam government, and in cahoots with her friend Volyova has vilified the Ultra to draw the public eye away from their true purpose, one that will see the Nostalgia For Infinity used as an escape ship for the people of Resurgam. As the Inhibitors draw closer to human space and are seen building massive constructs whose purpose is unfathomable, the two allies must decide when to use the huge weapons stored in her ship against them.

Basically that whole first half which sees a number of other things happen, some monumental and some not so much is pace-perfect and never feels slow. The three plot threads start to twine together and various characters are united and others aren’t. The science (especially the new propulsion system) is as engrossing as it is entertaining. We, also at the midway point, meet a character from the satellite book about the melding plague (CHASM CITY) who will be responsible for events later on in the book and things ramp up!

…right before they slow right down.

Personally I think the whole reason the book slows right down is as a direct result of Reynold’s adherence to his own science. There is a ship chase in space while the two ships are using this new propulsion and the nature of it makes for a rather tepid chase. Everything becomes long-winded and even firing missiles or other weapons becomes a scientific equation about whether the ship being fired at will be in the area of space or not when the missile arrives. Messages are sent and threats are sent back and forth. Speeds are trumped up to ridiculous, and unsafe levels in an effort to reach the goal first, but it all really feels like music from another room. Like the muted after echo of action. Does that make sense? So the science of the chase (in a universe where travelling between the main planet and a frontier planet can take 20 years) even sped up feels like everyone is moving in slow motion. Clavain gets an ultimatum from Skade and has only…days…to get back to her. It therefore, never feels tense enough to me. So for more than 250 pages the book was a rather plodding action sequence.

After that though, things get back to the status quo as the people reach orbit of Resurgam and the plot threads come crashing together. Everyone meets each other and things start to pop off in proper Reynold’s fashion. The pace at this point has blissfully returned to normal and the story’s interest perks back up. Everyone here is seeking Redemption, and I think that is why the novel bears this title as nearly everyone has something in their past to atone for. The book finishes on a great note and successfully keeps me interested in the series.

My only other vague issue is I have an inkling that again the menace we have been told about (and have been repeatedly told is “evil”) the Inhibitors, may not be all bad and may in fact be doing things for good instead. I’m afraid they’ll play less of an overall role in the final book and I for one hope that whatever takes their place as the “big bad” is up to the task of how mysterious and darkly scary they were as an idea. I mean a whole race bent on only one thing, destroying any race intelligent enough to travel the stars….that’s scary on like a Dalek level. As an aside I feel I should mention, there really isn't anyone as unknown in their actions as Dan Sylveste was in the first book. He was so very grey and ultimately hindered humanity instead of helping them. To me he was absolutely FASCINATING in everything he did and said. It's one of Reynold's strengths as an author in making grey characters, as he does so in some of his short fiction too. In this book everyone is much more black and white, though there are a few exceptions I suppose. 

That said, Nevil Clavain is the epitome of he makes up for it. Imagine a cool grandfather, who is a brilliant military general, rich, on uppers, at Christmas.

Anyways, my re-read made me realize my first thoughts on the book were accurate and still stand. While it is a worthy sequel, I think it falls slightly short of the first book due to the plodding area mid-book that I had to push through to get to the better ending. It’s still very worth your time though as Reynold’s work is quite extraordinary, and if you are a fan of the first book you will be a fan of this one.

As a last aside. Am I the only one who loves the fact that the carousel of inhabited space stations orbiting Yellowstone was, in the first book, called the Glitter Band…and in the second after the melding plague ravaged it is now called the Rust Belt? I loved that. Nice touch Reynolds.

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