Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds, is a story about sail ships and pirates, about gauging the wind and mutinous talk, about being stranded, and about islands full of buried treasure. What makes this tale of adventure and danger so interesting however, is that it is science fiction. The ships are space ships and the sails are light sails, capturing momentum from the solar winds. The treasure islands are baubles, habitations and space stations, small worlds built around tiny black-holes which provide them gravity, shielded and dangerous to enter, but holding the remnants of civilisations passed by.
Everything in this book screams the piratical theme, the beats and tropes, the events and character, even the lilt and pattern of speech. There were times when I felt this would be a disharmonious partnership, a mismatch between the spirit and the reality of the book’s internal setting, a fractious pairing that didn’t quite work, but I was wrong. I’m sure that some people will read this book and feel the setting doesn’t quite manage to pull of what it sets out to, but I am not one of them. For me Reynolds leans into the setting’s nautical spirit with such gusto that everything just works.
In many ways Revenger reminded me of the Treasure Island movie that Disney released some years ago – a sort of steam-punk/sci-fi revision of Robert Louie Stevenson’s seminal work. I remember thinking at the time that the movie just didn’t manage to realise the setting, perhaps a product of the visual nature of the medium. Revenger, on the other hand, works.
The characters in Revenger are all larger than life and pulled straight from the pages or screen of every pirate book and movie you will have had chance to read or watch. Despite this they are likable and dislike-able in equal measure, heroes and heroines you care for, villains you despise, and fools you feel sorry for. The main character Fura Ness, and her sister Adrana are the main protagonists, and in full genre style it’s not long before you, as reader, are cheering on their successes and scowling at those who seek to bring them low.
This is the second ‘mash-up’ novel I have read by Alastair Reynolds, in both these novels the settings step beyond the traditional tropes of science-fiction, and mash together two or more sub-genres to create something curious and involving. The first I read was Terminal World, which I reviewed here, and Revenger feels very much in the same sort of vein. Taking the tropes and expectations of one sub-genre (pirate tales), and embedding it in another (science fiction). I’m confident that this is a risky endeavour for any author, assuming the risk that they will have to juggle the weights and expectations of two different audiences (or at least what an audience might expect of a specific genre), but Reynolds has managed magnificently.
Revenger is a story of sailing the high seas and looting treasure, it’s a story about rascals and devils, salt of the earth sailors and tough and ready brawlers, it’s a tale of gentlemen and nobles and a tale of a dread pirate. It is also a tale of science fiction, ancient and full of technological marvels, self-aware robots and the dangers of space-walking. Somehow, against all odds, like a ship hell bent on riding out a deadly storm in a race to claim buried treasure, Revenger manages to brave the choppy waters and triumph.
I enjoyed this book a lot, the setting is engaging and the genre mash-up is two worlds woven together in a way that is fascinating and thrilling. Revenger is engaging, full of adventure and a whole lot of fun.