REVIEW SUMMARY: Excellent, richly detailed story that raises the bar for space opera.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Security operative Tanner Mirabel seeks revenge on Argent Reivich; Generation ship captain Sky Haussmann rises to a seat of psychotic power on the journey to settle a planet in the Cygnus star system.
PROS: First-rate world building; fantastic sense of wonder; excellent and captivating storytelling filled with intrigue, deception and twists.
CONS: This book took a lot of calendar time for me to read because a vacation got in the way.
BOTTOM LINE: Highly recommended and, as a stand-alone novel, this is an excellent introduction into Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe.
Once again, Alastair Reynolds has crafted a superb story that propels him way ahead of other writers in terms of quality, ability and skill.
Chasm City is set in the Revelation Space universe that is highlighted in the trilogy comprised of Revelation Space, Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap as well as some of his equally-outstanding short stories like Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days.
Tanner Mirabel is an expert soldier who is hired by Cahuella, an arms dealer, to protect Cahuella and his wife, Gitta, in the jungles of the planet named Sky’s Edge. Cahuella is the target of Argent Reivich, a man who seeks revenge after one of Cahuella’s Arms deals goes sour. As the story opens, we know that Reivich has succeeded in exacting revenge in some fashion because Mirabel is seeking revenge in return. It’s like “an eye for an eye for an eye”.
Mirabel’s chase leads him to the planet Yellowstone (briefly featured in Revelation Space) which is the home of Chasm City – a domed settlement that surrounds a deep abyss in the planet’s crust but one which provides life-sustaining energy. The bad news is that Chasm City has been infected with the Melding Plague, a nano-virus that affects both living and non-living things. The buildings of Chasm City have been transformed by the Melding Plague into abstract grotesqueries that only marginally resemble the buildings they once were. Because of the plague, Chasm City’s sociological structure has been separated into the Mulch – the dark, seedy lower parts of the city that are reduced to steam power to avoid any further infection – and the Canopy – the upper reaches of the twisted buildings where transportation is provided by cable cars with octopus-like arms that swing along the outsides of the misshapen buildings and the elite tempt their pseudo-immortality with death-defying games.
Before he leaves Sky’s Edge, Mirabel becomes the target of religious zealots who spread their gospel by means of an indoctrinal virus. The virus causes Mirabel to have dreams about the cultist’s leader, Sky Haussmann – the last captain of one of the generation ships that settled Sky’s Edge. Mirabel’s dreams about Sky Haussmann occur with ever-increasing frequency and detail Sky’s life from his innocent and traumatic childhood to his psychotic rise to power. Haussmann, like the captains before him, is tasked with transporting the precious reefer-sleepers to the new planet. His is one of five flotilla ships sent from Jupiter to the Cygnus system. Over the centuries of the journey, each of the five ships retreat into their own society and become more and more isolated from each other to the point of becoming enemies. They race to be the first to colonize the planet dubbed Journey’s End but which is eventually named Sky’s Edge thanks to a horrible atrocity performed by Captain Sky Haussmann that gives him the edge over the competition.
Chasm City is structured to intertwine three story threads: Mirabel’s present-day hunt for revenge against Reivich, Mirabel’s past with Cahuella and Sky Haussmann’s historic journey across the stars. When I first picked up the book, I assumed the Reivich hunt was the main point of the story; indeed, it is the anchoring plot line that drives the story forward albeit at a slow pace (that plot line spans only a few days in the story once Mirabel reaches Yellowstone). But that assumption was wrong. Instead it merely provides a way for the author to do what he does best – world building. This universe is one of the most imaginative places in fiction. It’s filled with a sense of wonder and is as rich and complex as can be hoped for by any sf reader. And while I was at first less-than-thrilled at the pace of what I thought was the main story, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was being led through a world filled with wonder and awe. That’s something that all sf writers hope to achieve, but few manage to accomplish to this degree. I felt the same way when I read Reynold’s short story Spirey and the Queen, and have the same feeling after finishing it; I want more.
Reynolds’ characters are equally complex. Mirabel is a cold-blooded killer who would stop at nothing to kill his target. Reivich is a worthy adversary who is as slippery as he is treacherous. Cahuella also is lacking a healthy set of morals as an arms dealer and has little or no comprehension of his own vulnerability. Although it is explained by story’s end, I did have a hard time justifying Mirabel’s motive for killing Reivich, who himself was only doing the “honorable” thing by exacting revenge on Mirabel’s boss, Cahuella.
By the satisfying end of Chasm City, the reader realizes that Reynolds is an immensely skillful writer. His storytelling is superb; without realizing it at first, you are on a journey filled with imaginative scientific wonders like space elevators (the scene of a very exciting action sequence early in the novel), alien creatures, super-extreme sports (like bungee-jumping into the incredibly dangerous chasm mist – for fun!), hunting games played for keeps, generation starships, nanotechnology, shape-shifting, immortality and more. All of this is expertly woven into a first-rate space opera that leaves you wanting more.
This is Reynold’s second novel and a vast improvement over his first, Revelation Space. (I should mention that the four short stories of his that I’ve read are all excellent.) And even though I enjoyed the first book less than Chasm City, the richness and wonder of this universe makes me want to pick up Revelation Space and read it again because I will definitely be devouring its sequels; Redemption Ark and Absolution Gap.