1 February 2020

Review - Bone Silence by Alastair Reynolds

Bone Silence (Revenger, 3)
Cover design www.blacksheep-uk.com
Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz, 30 January 2020
HB, e, 602pp

I'm grateful to Gollancz for a free advance copy of Bone Silence.

The final part of the Revenger trilogy (after Shadow Captain), Bone Silence returns to the universe of Captains Arafura and Adrana Ness. In this far-future solar system, the planets themselves have been dismantled, yielding the material for the construction of tens of thousands of "worlds" - habitable structures a few kilometres across, built in all shapes and sizes (discs, spheres, spindles...) This is where humanity lives now, although civilisation has waxed and waned, with thirteen distinct "Occupations" - phases when people were expanding and settling. The history of this is mysterious, with plenty of powerful artifacts to be recovered from abandoned "baubles".

In this setting the Ness sisters - two young women who ran away from home world Mazarile seeking adventure, but found piracy, fighting and death with Fura ultimately rescuing Adrana from captivity - now scour the spacelanes in their ship the sunjammer Revenger, captured from the dread pirate Bosa Sennen. Unfortunately a bounty has been set on their heads, and they're pursued by a squadron of the Congregation's most ruthless thief takers who believe they are in league with Sennen, or perhaps that they are Sennen (it's complicated).

I love the setting for these books. In Reynolds' hands, the manoeuvrings of the great sail-driven craft, the hazards of calling at unruly and fractious port world, the glory a of a fight, the the salty language, and above all the loot up there for the taking - for me all these evoke the never-was pirate-ridden world of Stevenson and Robinson Crusoe. It's an advanced world with advanced tech but all the familiar themes are there - the long pursuits, the scanning for sight of a sail, the ferocious broadsides (here, delivered with electromagnetic coil guns). And the crew members we meet wouldn't be out of place lurking in a corner of the Admiral Benbow.

If that was all these books had, they might be fun, but no more than a jeu d'esprit (albeit a good one) on Reynolds' part. But there's much, much more than that. Under the surface of this book are serious SF themes: the fate of humanity in the far future, the origins of civilisations, our relationship with alien races. And big human themes: the sisters are coming of age, finding their place in this strange universe, making friends (and enemies) and losing them. Those themes are explored rather more thoroughly in this book than in the previous ones, the Ness sisters having now found one another and constructed some form of relationship again after the traumas they suffered before.

Indeed, solving these mysteries has become more than a matter of casual curiosity. Fura and Adrana have now become convinced that it's key not only to the future of the human race but to their own more immediate survival. There's also a desperation to this book that marks it out from the others. We have had hints before that outside forces may be manipulating events but here it seems there are two sides, rival factions of aliens pursuing some conflict and bringing an even tighter sense of danger to events. It's not clear who can be trusted, or even what is to be gained from those can.

Bone Silence felt to me more focused, basically an extended chase sequence, than the earlier books, and more sober: the sisters are growing up, there's less sheer exuberance and a greater awareness of consequences (as when someone who lost money because of what Fura and Adrana did at the end of the last book plunges to his death. before their eyes). The stakes are higher now - it's not just a question of being dragged back home, and they have enemies with deep pockets and an even longer reach. There is an edge to the battles, a sense of the gloves being off.

It is, though, not all action. I enjoyed the shipboard sections when nothing much seemed to be going on, but the two sisters - and their ragged crew - were learning to trust each other. There are many, many reasons why they wouldn't, and Revenger herself holds dark memories, especially for Adrana. Shudder at what went on in the "kindness room"! Revisit the Bone Room, where the twinkling, alien skull allows communication - at a price - across great distances. In this book the process carries a more deadly edge than ever - there is the prospect of discovery for one thing, and other, darker dangers as well. (The exact origin and nature of the bones and the "twinkly" inside them is never made clear: like many aspects of the Revenger universe, that remains a dark secret, perhaps to be revealed one day, perhaps not). And Reynolds' portrayals of the crewmen and women are rounded and fully formed.

All in all great fun, though this is one trilogy you really do need to read in order.

For more about Bone Silence, and to buy the book, see the Gollancz website here.

Alastair Reynolds' website is here.

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