I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Alastair Reynolds’ name is always enough to make me pay attention to any new book he publishes: so far I’ve learned to expect space opera stories strongly based on science and dealing with a galaxy-wide scope of events, so my curiosity was piqued by the blurb for Eversion, which sounded like a very different take from those themes. It turned out to be a very unexpected, deeply engaging read that held my attention from start to finish and offered a quite unusual story that mixed some Groundhog Day vibes with tales of exploration and an alien mystery shrouded in a quasi-Lovecraftian shade of fear: in short, a story that compelled me to burn the proverbial midnight oil to see where the author would take me.
The novel starts, quite unexpectedly, on a sailing ship from the early 19th Century, the Demeter, traveling through the icy waters of Norway: Dr. Silas Coade, the ship’s surgeon, is the narrating voice of the story as he relates the goal of the expedition, a search for a mysterious construct – named the Edifice – that could be reached through a narrow passage in the ice. The expedition members include, besides the good doctor, the leader of the group, boisterous Master Topolsky; Coronel Ramos, a weapons and explosives expert; tormented mathematician Dupin, and a few others, including Lady Ada Cossile, a noblewoman of great knowledge and prickly disposition. As their intended destination approaches, we get to know the various members of the group and learn about the frictions generated by such different characters sharing close quarters: once the passage is located, though, and the wreck of a previous visiting ship – the Europa – is discovered, tempers flare in a heated exchange of accusations, and then disaster strikes in a most unexpected way. But it’s not the end, because in the next chapter we find once again Dr. Coade on Demeter, only this time he finds himself on a late 19th Century steamship, forging the waters near Patagonia – and still looking for a mysterious passage and an equally mysterious Edifice…
The pattern repeats itself again as the time frame proceeds forward and Demeter morphs from sail ship to steamship to dirigible to spaceship, always seeking to uncover the mystery of the Edifice, always forging through a dangerous passage and always meeting with disaster in one form or another. Some elements remain the same throughout the various versions of the story, however: the characters and their respective roles; Dr. Coade’s addiction to drugs and his literary aspirations which take the form of speculative fiction in which he imagines more advanced technology; Ramos’ head injury which Coade treats successfully and which leads to a close friendship between the two men; Ada Cossile’s pointed remarks which seem to target the doctor more than anyone else, and the hints that she might know more about him than circumstances seem to warrant. It all adds to a compelling narrative that kept me reading on as the picture gained more details with each new iteration, until the core of the puzzle was revealed and it opened the door toward the real situation and danger facing the complement of the Demeter.
The buildup of narrative pressure is certainly the strongest element in Eversion: from the moment in which the story resumes after the first catastrophic ending, although in a slightly different form, it’s clear that there is more at work here than meets the eye, and obtaining the answers to the many questions posed by the story becomes the main attraction in this compelling novel, where the new elements manage only to tease the readers’ imagination, leading them to formulate hypotheses that most of the times prove wrong. When I previously mentioned the Groundhog Day vibes I might have made this story sound like a series of repetitions, but it’s far from that, not only because of the changes in temporal and technological setting for each iteration, but also because there is always some new detail that adds something to the overall picture, while never offering a way to pierce the mystery. Being kept guessing might prove somewhat frustrating, but it’s also a sure way to compel you to forge ahead and look for the final revelation – which will prove to be quite unexpected.
One of the other intriguing components in this novel is the enigma tied to the Edifice, a place whose size and shape appear almost Lovecraftian in their mind- and space-bending quality and also because of the bothersome messages left by the unfortunate crew of Europa about the horrors waiting there: there is nothing more chilling than an incomplete message about something terrible and inescapable coming from the depths, and here it’s also paired with Dr. Coade recurring dream about a
[…] stumbling progress down a stone tunnel, a scurrying nightmare charged with the terrible conviction that I myself were already dead.
which will get a startling but consistent explanation once the veil will be pierced.
Compared to Alastair Reynolds’ previous works, Eversion lacks the sense of galactic vastness one can find in them, but it’s the rather confined background of this story which allows him to explore in greater depth the characters (something which I felt was somewhat missing from his other novels) and to linger on their interactions and personalities. There is a greater focus here on friendship and interpersonal relationships, mixed with some intriguing discussions about ethics and the kind of acceptable sacrifices to be tolerated in the quest for knowledge: it all gains an intriguing meaning once we learn about the reality of the situation facing Coade and the crew of Demeter, adding depth and humanity to what, until that point, was just a puzzling mystery.
While quite different from my previous experience with Alastair Reynolds’ writing, Eversion proved to be a fascinating novel combining science fiction and mystery in a seamless blend: prepare for something unexpected but totally engrossing…