BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Several factions attempt to gain control of doomsday weapons while the Inhibitors, a race of killing machines, begin a massive attack on the planet Resurgam.
PROS: Cool storyline and storytelling, great sense-of-wonder, richly detailed and compelling universe.
CONS: Weaker ending.
BOTTOM LINE: If you liked Revelation Space, you’ll love Redemption Ark.
Redemption Ark is the sequel to the well-received debut novel of Alastair Reynolds, Revelation Space and, contrary to the oft-followed formula of the sucky sequel, this is a significantly better book. [NOTE: I would recommend reading the excellent standalone novel Chasm City before reading Redemption Ark as the events in that story are referenced here. Also, I would recommend reading short stories “The Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial” as their plots are divulged here as well. The short stories can be found in the Year’s Best SF series (#18 and #19) edited by Gardner Dozois. (What, you don’t already have them stored away in some box somewhere just waiting to be read?)]
The main focus of Redemption Ark is on the retrieval of the ultimate, “hell-class” weapons that are aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, the lighthugger ship first encountered in Revelation Space. About forty years have passed since those events and Ana Khouri and Illia Volyova have become the hidden benefactors of the planet Resurgam. That planet is the target of an attack by the Inhibitors, a race of killing machines that exterminate intelligent life from the galaxy. Khouri and Volyova seek to evacuate the planet.
The weapon creators, the Conjoiners, also seek the weapons. The Conjoiners (featured in the hugely entertaining short story “Diamond Dogs“) are the hive-mind faction that embraces the technology that can enhance human life by providing cool bio-enhancements like total memory storage and instantaneous communications. Skade, amidst the war with the Demarchists (another human faction that was once the ruling class), leads the Conjoiner mission to retrieve the weapons so that the Conjoiners may one day fight the Inhibitors. She is assisted by Nevil Clavain who has been in reefersleep for over four hundred years. Clavain doubts the morality of the Conjoiners plan even though he himself is one of them.
The thing I like most about Reynolds’ stories is losing myself in the richly detailed and varied universe he has created. The story comes alive with riveting histories and cool technology and awesome galactic-scale ideas. And Unlike Dune, whose world building suffered from thick internal dialogue-a-thons, Redemption Ark is bolstered by an intriguing story line, expert storytelling and three-dimensional characters. (OK, Baron Harkonnen was a hoot but how boring was Paul?)
Along the way, the reader is introduced to other important characters. There’s Antoinette Bax, who lives around the planet Yellowstone (home of Chasm City) and she is drawn into the fray when she gets between a Conjoiner/Demarchist confrontation. There’s, Scorpio, member of a race of genetically created pig-humans, who carries an extreme hatred for all humans. And there’s also Remontoire, Clavain’s Conjoiner friend.
Each one of these characters has a rich and compelling back-story that adds to the depth of Reynolds’ Inhibitor universe. Clavain has the events that are detailed in Reynolds’ short stories “The Great Wall of Mars” and “Glacial”. Fortunately for the uninitiated reader, these events are explained to a fairly high degree so you are not left in the dark. (Which may be unfortunate for me since, having enjoyed this book so much, I will definitely be reading those stories.) Bax has an interesting back-story concerning her father, whose name was tarnished before his death. And Scorpio has his own issues as the victim of slavery and torture at the hands of humans.
Reynolds does a thorough job explaining character motivations. The conflict in the book comes from each group wanting the doomsday weapons for different reasons and purposes. Several of the characters undergo changes that keep them interesting and believable. Throw in some cool technology, changing allegiances, galactic-scale conflict, stir, and out comes one very admirable space opera.
The author’s writing style is greatly improved in Redemption Ark. I found Revelation Space, his first novel, to be a bit on the dry side. In Redemption Ark, the writing is much more accessible, but it was both a slow and fast read. It was a slow read when Reynolds described some interesting back-story or history. It was a fast read when an action sequence kicked in. By the end of just about every chapter, you wanted more.
If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that the ending was a bit weak. After a fabulous buildup, much of the resolving actions occurred offstage and I felt like I wanted to be there. It sets the stage for the third book in the sequence, Absolution Gap, but falls a little short on delivering the goods for this book. But in perspective, that small letdown was minor in comparison with the consistently high quality of the other 98% of this very imaginative piece of work.
[NOTE: JP’s review can be found here]