BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A pair of long-lived clones search for the perpetrators of a tragedy that has befallen their family line.
PROS: Big-scale ideas; packed with sense of wonder; great world building; backed up by believable science.
CONS: For the first twenty percent of the novel, the story lacks a protagonist, and thus narrative drive, although that was somewhat compensated by the wonderful world building; the secondary plot didn’t tie in as directly with the primary plot as much as I would have liked.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve never experienced Reynolds’ tasty brand of space opera before, House of Suns is a great place to start.
There are a handful of things one comes to expect from an Alastair Reynolds novel – things like galaxy-spanning ideas, multiple plots that ultimately converge, and meticulous world building. Call it a formula, if you will, but it works. It’s worked before in his Revelation Space books (including the wonderful Chasm City) and it works again in his latest space opera, House of Suns.
The main characters in House of Suns are Campion and Purslane, a male/female pair of clones derived from the same person: Abigail Gentian. Campion and Purslane are just two of the one thousand clones (“shatterlings”) in the Gentian Line, a long-lived “family” that traipses around the galaxy in two hundred thousand year-long cycles and then regroups to compare notes on the various civilizations they have seen come and go like “waves on the shore”. When the Gentian Line meets with unexpected tragedy, Campion and Purslane look to solve the mystery behind it. With them are Hesperus (the semi-amnesiac golden robot who is a member of The Machine People race) and Dr. Meninx (a cranky aquatic being who uses a paper-thin avatar to communicate with non-aquatics) as well as several other Gentian shatterlings.
This is a very generic description of the beginnings of the main plot thread, enough to point you in the direction the story is headed before it turns a corner or three (where things happen that I’d rather not reveal). When the aforementioned tragedy hits is when the book really finds its stride. Until then, Reynolds focuses on the world building. That’s when the reader has time to learn about the nature and purpose of the Gentian Line. Being relatively long lived (both through the expected time dilation effects and the more inventive biological inhibitors) the clones of the Gentian Line get to experience the whole of human history from a unique perspective. They get to see how cultures rise and fall across eons. In many respects, the Gentian clones are also a culture unto themselves. Although they are egalitarian within the group, some of them act as if they are superior to the outside “turnover” cultures. They are also equipped with memory troves to record their experiences and share them between one another when they reconvene every 200 millennia – like the pending regroup mentioned at the story’s start. A bit of character drama is added by the fact that Campion and Purslane are involved in a relationship forbidden by the family line. This is all layered with secret agendas, mysterious factions (like the titular House of Suns) and the always-welcome intrigue.
There’s a secondary plot, too, involving the original Abigail Gentian herself: her history, her family’s clone business, and how she became intertwined with a dangerous virtual reality cube and an unexpected enemy. It was not always clear how this thread would tie in with the main one besides being a historical account of Abigail, and to be sure, this secondary plot was an entertaining one in its own right. However, I was expecting it to tie in more directly with the main one.
There are some mildly thought-provoking issues on display (for example, the fair treatment of prisoners) but sense of wonder is where this book excels. Reynolds is playing on a galactic-sized canvas and uses believable science to back up his grand ideas. People move about through superluminal flight combined with suspended animation, making travel a non-issue. This yields mind-boggling time scales, where millennia pass by like days. The Gentian Line specialty is building stardams, pseudo-Dyson Spheres composed of multiple ringworlds of varying rotation and radii, producing a “sphere” to contain a star’s energies. All cool.
If you’ve never experienced Reynolds’ tasty brand of space opera before, House of Suns is a great place to start.