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REVIEW: Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds

REVIEW SUMMARY: Engaging space opera


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A bunch of refugees seek a way to defeat the Inhibitors, an ancient alien race of self-replicating killing machines.

PROS: Engrossing story; interesting characters; cool sense of wonder.
CONS: Quickly-resolved and open ending leaves the reader without closure.
BOTTOM LINE: This is still damn fine SF.

Absolution Gap is the third book in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space/Inhibitor universe series after Revelation Space and Redemption Ark. Another fine novel, Chasm City, is a standalone set in the same universe. Absolution Gap had lots to live up to – I rated RS, RA and CC 3/5, 4.5/5 and 5/5, respectively, so I was expecting much SF goodness. Mostly, I got it.

The story is structured in three threads at the book’s start.

The first thread concerns the survivors from Redemption Ark whose story begins about 20+ years later in the year 2675. The refugees are on Ararat, a Pattern Juggler planet and their temporary home. They await the return of other survivors who set out on a mission at the end of RA to gain information to help defeat the Inhibitors, ancient killing machines bent on the curtailing of any significant advancement by an intelligent species. Clavain, the group’s leader, has secluded himself from the group in perpetual gloom. Scorpio, a member of the short-lived genetically engineered pig race, reluctantly assumes the role of leader. Scorpio seeks out Clavain when a mysterious ship crash lands on Ararat. Is it friend or foe?

The second thread begins in space in the year 2615. Quaiche is a gopher for a band of Ultras. He has one last chance to score big and redeem himself. A trip to a distant planet promises hope in the form of an ancient and priceless alien artifact. But Quaiche’s mission does not go according to plan and his fate is not what he, or the reader, might expect.

The third thread concerns young Rashmika on the planet Hela in the year 2727. Rashmika is on a quest to find out what happened to her brother after he joined the planet’s religious sun-worshiping group. Their enormous caravan travels around the equator of their slowly-rotating world so that it is always below their sun; they are forever hoping to catch a glimpse of the miracle that concerns it. When the caravan looses ground, will they dare to travel over the huge chasm known a Absolution Gap?

There is a lot to like with this story. First, the structure of the story is interesting in that the reader wonders how these seemingly unconnected threads will connect. As it turns out, threads one and two connect about thirty percent in, and then they connect with the third thread about eighty percent into the story. All story lines were engrossing on their own but their inevitable merging also kept me wondering how the author would connect the dots that are separated by decades.

Second, Reynolds provides a nice sense of wonder in just about every story element: the characters, the worlds, the ships, the artifacts, the societies and the sun worshiping religion. Nothing in this story is ho-hum. Main characters are believable and driven by a unique motivation. And the author has no qualms about killing off the main cast so don’t go getting all close with any of them. Another reason the characters are interesting is because they grow, sometimes for the better (leadership qualities, experience), sometimes not (loss of sanity – an oft used character change used by Reynolds; but always to goof effect). Even secondary characters have depth.

Third, Reynolds’ writing style is richly-detailed and informative. It’s nearly impossible to skim through this story because you will miss some important detail or another. Nor do you want to skim; this is stuff to be savored, not inhaled like a cheap dime store novel. Taken with the other points, the reader cannot help but be immersed in the story.

There were a few nits I had with the story, mostly aimed at the ending. The main stickler is that by the end of the book, the reader is left without a sense of closure. The ending is not exactly a cliffhanger, but it is open-ended (by “open-ended” I mean that a few plot points are left either unresolved or resolved in a sentence or three) leaving room for another installment. This is fine – I want more – but AG would have been a better book for closing up those loose ends. On the bright side, Reynolds did not default to the Deus ex machina ending used in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, something I thought Reynolds’ was preparing the reader for by mentioning an in-story chemical named “Deus Ex”.

Another grind I had was that the Inhibitors, the most dangerous and fearsome, not to mention coolest, threat humanity has ever encountered, is largely a lame duck by the end of the book. About midway through, the thrust of the book steered towards the mysterious “shadows”. Hello? The Inhibitors are dismantling planets faster than Harriet Klausner “reviews” books. What does a malevolent, self-replicating killing machine have to do to get noticed around here?

In perspective though, those detractions occur in the last 25 or so pages in this 560-page splendid space opera. The other 95% is damn good reading. I still maintain that this is a more-than-worthwhile series for any SF fan.

Also see JP’s review.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.
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