Let the Photons Fill Your Sails


In Revenger, author Alastair Reynolds takes the reader to a time and place where sail ships plying the trade winds link scattered islands of humanity, and sailors search for buried treasure and adventure. This is a world where things are measured in spans and leagues, travel takes weeks or months between settlements. And all of it in the vacuum of space.

I was captivated immediately. The sense of taking part in a kind of Treasure Island in space adventure helped build out the world in a way I’m not sure I have ever experienced before. Even the way people spoke, different dialects of sailor’s cant, seemed to hark back to the golden age of tall ships and piracy. Even the in-universe date, year 1799 of the 13th occupation, seemed to demand the reader acknowledge the pseudo-historical setting. The date seemed, also, to convey that this world stood at the end of an era, just as our world and society transformed through revolutions both technological, social and political.

Reynolds did an exceptional job showing a constant growth and change in the protagonist, Arafura Ness, or Fura for short. What begins as adventure becomes disaster, becomes tragedy, becomes a quest for revenge. Naivete grows into determination and finally hardens to conviction and resolve.

As with many of Reynold’s other books the characters who live in that world don’t necessarily have all the answers. The history and origins of the Congregation of Worlds, a Dyson swarm surrounding ‘the old sun’, are lost to the depths of time, and no definite answers are given, but there are sufficient hints to intrigue. Though I desperately want to know how and why things came to be, I understand that explaining too much would remove much of the mystery of the novel.

Revenger seems, to me, to resemble two of Reynolds’ other novels: Terminal World and House of Suns. Terminal World also had a mysterious history. Even the most fundamental and defining element of that world, that certain geographic regions had different maximum levels of technology, was left unexplained. House of Suns, on the other hand, explains most of its history, but covers the entire Milky Way galaxy and millions of years. The setting seems like the perfect backdrop for innumerable stories. The vastness of space and the depth of time give infinite opportunities for storytelling. The Congregation of Worlds offers similarly huge opportunities, with its twenty-thousand habitable worlds and 13 occupations across ten million years.

Overall, I thought the level of immersion was incredible. The detail in the description of the worlds, ships and people was phenomenal. The author paints a vivid picture of a civilization in decline, surviving on scraps of their more advanced ancestors. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, or even historical fiction. It may still be early, but I’m confident this will be one of the best books I read this year.