Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

28962452If someone had told me that I would not be able to finish a book by Alastair Reynolds, I would never have believed them: he’s one of my favorite SF authors, and I’ve always enjoyed what I read so far, so when I learned of this new novel I dived straight for it, only to be profoundly disappointed.

The story focuses on two sisters, Adrana and Arafura, and is told from Arafura’s point of view: they leave their home on Mazarile to join a crew of glorified scavengers searching through the relics of old civilizations for valuable objects.  There are many interesting details to this view of the universe: humanity has spread away from Earth (there are several mentions of the Old Sun and its failure) and created artificial homes on planets and habitats; the remnants of previous civilizations are to be found enclosed in baubles, that open at pre-arranged times to allow the treasure hunters to look for artifacts; there is a form of instantaneous communication/listening device that uses a sort of huge (alien?) skull to establish contact, or to eavesdrop, but only if the operators are young people, with a still-developing brain; and there are pirates, preying on the scavenger crews to get at the artifacts without doing the hard work.

Most of the above is often mentioned in passing, but never satisfactorily explored, especially on the subject of the baubles and how they came to be: I’m not in favor of massive info-dumps, on the contrary, but it seems… wasteful to give the readers a glimpse of something so intriguing, and never to offer enough information to make sense of it all.  I believe the roots of the problem lie with Arafura’s point of view, and for a variety of reasons: for starters, she knows little of the universe she lives in, and that makes sense up to a point, because of her secluded life on Mazarile. Yet, once she escapes the stifling confines of her life, she shows little interest in the “big picture” out there, accepting with irritating passivity the information provided by her crew-mates, without looking further than that: there is nothing of the hungry curiosity I would have expected from a teenager who is for the first time free of the constraints of her former existence, none of the wonder of being “out there” and living an adventure.  If I were to distill the sisters’ reactions to the new and intriguing vistas opening before them, I could do it with: “oh, um… yeah, ok”.

Even worse is the “voice” of the two young girls: their dialogue and inner thoughts sound… dumbed down, for want of a better word.  If this is meant to be Alastair Reynolds’ attempt at expanding into YA fiction, I find it more than inadequate: used as I am to his neat, incisive prose, what I found in Revenger was a writing style so careless that I often wondered if I was truly reading such a well-known author. And if Arafura’s very simplified expressive range is the means to reach out to the younger audiences this seems to be intended to, I find it somewhat insulting, because readers in this age target are much more articulate than that.

Another problem I encountered with this book was the inciting incident for the whole story: the decision of the two girls to leave their planet comes out of the blue, after a visit to a sort of carnival booth in which some lady happens to have a device that measures the ability to read bones, a very sought-after skill for a treasure-hunting crew.  Forgetting for a moment the presence of such a device outside of a lab, or the fact it’s in the hands of a charlatan, the ease with which the two – and Arafura in particular, since she seems the less flighty of the pair – choose to abandon their home and their father sounds contrived and far too convenient, just like their immediate recruitment by Captain Rackamore of the ship Monetta’s Mourn. In what looks like a matter of hours, the sisters are out in space, ready for a remunerative job that might help the family’s flagging finances, without a single apparent qualm about what and who they leave behind, or what kind of dangers they might face on the scavenger ship.  Moreover I want to reserve a special mention to a scene in which the carnival lady’s helper wrecks the girl’s guardian robot Paladin to keep it from interfering with the examination: it looks ludicrous, absurd, excessive and totally out of context with the rest of the story.  If it was meant as comic relief, I’m afraid it failed completely.

Faced with these difficulties, I would not have hesitated to abandon this book much earlier, had it been written by a less-respected author, so I struggled on, ignoring my own law about never reading something that feels like work rather than pleasure: still, the story remained un-engaging and after a while even the attempts at inserting peculiar words to show the changes in everyday language (“lungstuff” for air or oxygen; “lamps” for eyes; “coves” for persons, and so forth) became an irritant rather than background information.  When tragedy hit the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, with the assault by the pirate ship led by Bosa Sennen, I hoped that something would change, that I would see some strong reaction from Arafura, but once again my hopes were dashed: the girl’s lack of substantial emotional responses strengthened my impression of a cardboard character with no depth at all, one I could not be invested in.  Having lost what little interest I had gathered for the story up to that point, I gave up the struggle a little before the halfway mark.

What most troubled me with Revenger was that the potential for the story was there, but it remained untapped and was instead buried under uninspired writing and poor characterization.  Not at all what I’m used to from a Reynolds book.

My Rating:

39 thoughts on “Review: REVENGER, by Alastair Reynolds

  1. Oh noes, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a low rating from you and yes, I know Reynolds is one of your favorite authors so I am doubly shocked! I had requested this book for review though, which should be arriving any day now. It’ll be my first book by this author, so I am still excited to read it, but thank you for all the warnings, I’ll be sure to keep them in mind and not to hype myself up 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Looking at the overall ratings I am in the minority here, so it stands to reason that my dislike might be more the product of my Curmudgeonly Evil Twin 😀 than anything else. I’ll look forward to your comments on this one!


  2. Oh noooos! So sorry to hear this. The scavenger element described in your second paragraph sounds so cool, too. But cool ideas don’t always get paired with the right storyline and characters, unfortunately. Thanks for the thorough, helpful review!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Drat! Thanks for the heads up- it was on my tbr, but I’ll have to try something else by Reynolds instead. I’ve never read him before. I want to try Scalzi first (The Collapsing Empire, woo hoo! March is coming!!! :D), but Reynolds may need to be my next sci-fi author to try.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Then you can either try “Chasm City” or “House of Suns”, or if you feel like immersing yourself in a multi-layered series, the Revelation Space trilogy: all of these will prove more than satisfactory reads. Looking forward to your thoughts about them! And Scalzi, of course… 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Gasp! I had this book on my list with a lot of expectations. Why people think that YA has to be toned down? I’m not exactly a fan of YA novels, but good ones do exist, and they’re great reading. Sad to know this is not among them!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll read it and see by myself. However, I tend to trust your judgement – because it’s by no means the first time I hear of something similar happening when (otherwise excellent) authors “switch” to uncharted territories. 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Reynolds’ well of creativity has run dry for some time. I doubt he’ll get back on track soon: the crowd seems to love his junk. Sad, he had great potential, but chose quantity over quality.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Isn’t it a bummer when one of your favourite authors, whose books you can always count on, disappoints you? I felt the same thing when I read Kelley Armstrong’s Age of Legends trilogy (YA “high fantasy”): normally I can count on her for great characters, tight plotting, and good world building but the whole story fell apart by the third book and felt way too clunky.

    Would you believe that I’ve never read a book by Alastair Reynolds? *ducks head in shame* Do you have a recommendation for where to start with Reynolds’ work?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No need to be ashamed! There are too many authors – and books – out there and even with 48 hours days and little or no need for sleep we could not hope to even scratch the tip of the iceberg! 🙂
      As for Reynolds, my advice would be either “House of Suns” or “Chasm City”: they are both standalones, but give you a good idea of the author’s vision. Then there is the Revelation Space trilogy: very convoluted but highly intriguing. Good reading!


  6. Toning down YA just annoys me so much! It’s really not necessary at all and it just alienates all possibilities of a different audience liking it as well. What a shame and a massive disappointment for you though given how much you enjoy this author.
    Lynn 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This was my first Reynolds book and I liked the change of pace compared to many other authors. I found the setting very intriguing, the baubles, the ship and other mysteries. I did think it started slow and was dubious at first but it definitely got better. Loved the ending and looking forward to the follow on. If you didn’t like this book them I’m definitely going to read his others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reynolds’ other works are quite different from this – more complex, more layered: maybe this is the reason I was disappointed by Revenger, I expected to find the kind of story I was used to… I hope you enjoy his other works just as much!


  8. I found this review while looking for a plot synopsis of Revenger to prepare for reading the second book in the series, Shadow Captain.

    While I agree that this book had a major change in style I think you missed something. The entire book is written to mimic the style of mid-to-late 19th century adventure fiction (think Treasure Island, Journey to the Center of the Earth, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Its a world building project meant to recapture the spirit of adventure and exploration present in the great-great-grandparents of the modern sci-fi/fantasy genre.

    Reynolds’ attempts to do this by using the same tone and pacing as those early works, which can feel a bit stilted to modern readers admittedly. The characters aren’t “dumbed down”, they’re period appropriate. 19th century British citizens didn’t emote nearly as often or to the same degree that modern people do, and they were not educated by and large. When you are putting together a character that comes from a culture that does not value education or curiosity as highly as ours its not really surprising that the character doesn’t value those things either.

    I’m not trying to disagree with your opinion of the book, I’m only trying to say that you don’t seem to have been the target audience for it. I feel like it was written for people who grew up reading those (now classic) 19th century books and who enjoy modern science fiction. It’s most definitely not a YA book, although it is modeled on YA books from the 1800’s.

    Anyway, back to my plot summary search.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An interesting angle indeed, and I thank you for having shared it!
      I think that I might indeed not have been the right audience for this kind of story and narrative style, and that might explain my strong negative reaction. Still this does not sound like the Alastair Reynolds I used to know, and I believe I will keep on reading his more… classic endeavors. 🙂


  9. I agree withRidiculon. I found it an enjoyable read in the fashion of Indiana Jones. I too stumbled across this review looking for a plot synopsis before I read the second book. You have reminded me of some elements. The ‘carnivalesque ‘ sequence is akin to the bazaar one in Indiana Jones. I appreciate you recognised it may have been your evil twin writing. But you should read the entire book as many are slow burns but worth the perseverance. I did find Blue Remembered Earth captivating but the series overall was satisfying but fell way short of Revelation Space. Still this is only my opinion. I am enjoying book 2 Shadow Captain right now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve come to understand by now that the source of my disappointment came from expectations: I thought I would find the “usual” Reynolds style here, while this is a totally different kind of book, and I wanted something in the same range as the Revelation Space series. To quote another cult movie, after your Indiana Jones mention, this was not the book I was looking for 😀


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