A highlight of any Alastair Reynolds book is the largely untold backstory that weaves in and out of the narrative. Revelation Space is propped up against a forgotten 900,000-year-old catastrophe. The conspiracy plot of House of Suns turns on events scattered across six million years of history, and actively draws from it in each chapter. His latest work, Revenger, is sculpted from the same clay, yet with a young adult audience in mind (though the book isn’t being explicitly sold that way, and will appeal just as much to adult readers). It preserves Reynolds’ characteristic sense of history while shifting the focus to loot-happy pirates flying through space. The result is, perhaps, the most immediately engaging and enjoyable novel he has yet published, and we can only hope it will introduce many new readers to his astonishing body of work.
Spurred by their family’s declining fortune, sisters Adrana and Arafura Ness join a ship’s crew as “bone readers,” this universe’s version of communications officers. Instead of walkie talkies or subspace transmissions, vessels in Revenger send messages by plugging people into dead alien’s skulls and letting them whisper back and forth across space. Nobody really understands how it works, it just does (hey, it worked for Ursula K. LeGuin’s ansible, a far less gory, equally impossible bit of sci-fi handwaving—and equally effective as a storytelling technique). The Ness sisters are unusually good at what they do.
The allure of loot calls citizens from across the Congregation to seek out baubles, shielded caches of treasure that float throughout the galaxy. Each bauble opens up for a limited amount of time and contains artifacts from 10 million years of human and alien history—just the sort of things merchants will pay top quoins for. The downside of treasure hunting (apart from foul-mouthed space sailors and the threat of running out of lungstuff) is Bosa Sennen, a legendary pirate who attacks and plunders ships as she sees fit. When Bosa attacks Fura’s vessel and kidnaps her sister, the meek young girl begins her transformation into a hardened bone reader with a sharp focus on revenge.
Fast paced and fun, Revenger reads like a 19th century adventure novel, from tall tale-telling crewmembers to treasure-obsessed pirates. Sentient machines and limb replacement shops pull the setting into the realm of science fiction, but if you close your eyes you, can imagine baubles as deserted islands, spaceships as sea vessels, and bone readers as…well, that one works either way.
Revenger marks a change of pace for Alastair Reynolds. Setting and history typically propel his novels, but here, he foregrounds character and action. The text toggles back and forth between tense space battles and Fura chatting with her shipmates or pondering the workings of her world. Those millions of years of backstory are only hinted at, allowing the plot to rush forward as Fura mounts an epic plan for revenge.
If you’ve ever been intimidated by the expansive nature of Alastair Reynolds’ interconnected (and doorstopping) novels, Revenger is a fantastic entry point—but it also won’t disappoint longtime fans, who will appreciate him working just as effectively in another mode. Revenger displays has all the characteristics of his best books, but scaled to different intensities. Think of it like a gateway drug to his universe—a fast-moving adventure that doesn’t sacrifice backstory for the sake of a few sword battles in space.