Revenger - Review
Revenger is the latest yarn from noted British author Alistair Reynolds. It reads as an ungodly fusion of the best bits of Firefly, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Aeronaut's Windlass. Or, rather, it reads like the best bits, but thrown together into a blender full of drywall and beige paint, mixed at setting 11, then served beside a glass of milk and a Woolworths rocket salad.
Which is to say, in flowery terminology, it is really disappointing because it is so very, very boring.
I'm honestly a bit baffled as to why critics have raved about the book over on Goodreads. Normally I avoid other detailed opinions on books until I've good and digested the 600 pages of sci-fi/cyberpunk/epic fantasy/Brandon Sanderson masterwork which I've just read. This time, though, I made an exception. I read reviews during my time with Revenger – which took nearly three weeks of stopping and starting like a malfunctioning clothes dryer – because for the longest time, I was flagging with it. I was not invested, feeling detached and unengaged with every scene I read. I wanted to put it down for good and move back on with The Waking Fire, or Nevernight, or the Tenth Anniversary Edition of Elantris, or even the new Deus Ex novel, all of which are sitting on my desk and demanding I peruse them.
Revenger, rather than making demands, was strangely noncommittal, as if to say, 'Hey, it's alright, you can keep reading if you want. I'm not really fussed.'
I'm probably sounding overly harsh for a book which is, at best, a pulp read for a short plane flight. It's not as obviously aggravating as recent books I've wanted to throw down, like Good Morning Midnight or Down Station, but it's infuriating mostly because, per the allusions to other pop culture IPs above, it had so much potential, and so much going for it. The pre-release reviews were ecstatic; the best Alistair Reynolds book ever, some claimed. I'm not hugely personally familiar with Reynolds' work beyond his dual-author stint on The Medusa Chronicles with Stephen Baxter (which is, by the way, an intriguing read), and a friend’s recommendation of Blue Remembered Earth. But I thought, hey, why not: the book’s about space pirates escaping other space pirates while hunting for mystical treasure and seeking revenge on someone. If a book with so fun a premise is getting lauded to high heaven by Reynolds readers both veteran and neophyte, sounds like I'm in for a good time.
No. I was not in for a good time.
The story of Revenger begins with a pair of sisters, Adrana and Arafura (or Fura, to you coves), slipping the surly bonds of their Victorian aristocracy-inspired planet in order to sign up with a space pirate crew and go make money for their bankrupt father. After hitching a ride with Captain Rackamore and the crew of the Monetta's Mourn, the Ness sisters start a profitable life of money, adventure and space pirating. Unfortunately, their lifestyle earns the attention of noted space pirate extraordinaire Bosa Sennen, who is an evil, wretched woman who does evil, wretched things to those who are good and pure (I think). In order to survive, the sisters will have to navigate Bosa, the crew of the Monetta, and their own inexperience of dealing with the threats of the big, black, Empty space.
Now, before I proceed to what will hopefully be a brief set of points detailing why, exactly, I found Revenger to be so infinitely disappointing, I'll give a warning that I will have to venture into the dreaded Spoiler Territory, Tennessee, because a midpoint shift in both plot and characterisation is the big red flag from which all my other, smaller red flags are birthed. If you’re looking for an elevator pitch note of feedback from me on whether I liked Revenger or not, then consider this the endpoint of the review for you: if it weren’t already obvious, no, I did not like Revenger.
This is your last warning if you wish to remain vestal for the book’s big twists. Not that the twists Revenger offers up aren't already telegraphed like the results of a bad NRL match from the get-go, but just in case you're wary, consider the follow passages to constitute fairly significant spoilers ahead.
The big turn comes close to the halfway point of the book, when the naive ingenue Fura, having watched her sister be kidnapped by Bosa, goes home, gets kidnapped by her father, escapes with her old family robot while her father dies of a heart attack, cuts her hand off to escape a surveillance bracelet stuck to her wrist, gets a quasi-robot hand put on as a replacement, has her robot blind a man before getting the tar beaten out of it by other men, and lies her way into joining another crew of space pirates in order to use them as bait to lure Bosa out. All of a sudden, the youthful and completely inexperienced Fura is replaced by a cold-hearted bastard who is willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to get her sister back. Of course, the story directly acknowledges this with an assortment of clumsy, anvil-heavy introspections from Fura, who ponders that the sweet girl she once was has been replaced by this hardened badass cove, a person she likes being far more. That’d be fine if the character’s evolution felt less abrupt, or if enough had been done to flesh her out as a person (as opposed to her sister, who seems like a more well-rounded and interesting protagonist) by this point of the story.
The lack of character depth goes double for the crew of Monetta’s Mourn, many of whom are given some broad strokes of personality – the bitchy one, the hippie one, the fair-minded explorer Captain, the mentally unbalanced former crew member who’s strapped to a bed – before an all-too-brief sequence where Bosa raids the ship and kills most of the crew (some off-screen), causing the book to prompt us to feel bad. Fura notes she feels sad that they’ve died, even though she didn’t know them for long, but we as readers have nothing to hang out hats on here. Captain Rackamore seems like a decent guy, but I won’t feel anguish at his murder after seeing only a fraction of his persona’s on narrative display. The same goes for the wife of a married couple who dies out in space; Fura has a brief scene with her husband – who, also, dies shortly after – which again requests that we feel bad for him, knowing less about him than we do the Captain. Compounding the issue is that when Fura escapes her father and joins the second crew, the same problem repeats itself; all the characters on the new ship are as one-note, bland and indistinct from one another as they were on the first ship. The new Captain is actually even less compelling than Rackamore, a man who already had the narrative magnetism of a shorn mountain goat.
Most egregious of all in the character stakes is Bosa herself. She has a grand total of two scenes, the latter of them including a revelation on her true identity which would have been surprising if a character hadn’t literally guessed that twist two hundred pages earlier. I’m being totally serious; Bosa’s true nature is framed like a shocking development when it happens at the climax, but a character had almost word-for-word guessed this twist miles before it actually happened. In addition to that irksome thing, Bosa herself doesn’t present much as a villain. She’s evil, yes, she kills people, yes, she speaks in creepy third-person about herself, yes, and…that’s it. For all the foreshadowing that the characters throw out about how ruthless and legendarily evil she is, we as readers are not given anything close to the level of proof needed to evidence that claim for ourselves. She’s a generic creepy baddie who kills lots of good guys, lacking the off-screen gravitas that other noted baddies – like Darth Vader, Davy Jones, Mistborn’s Mr. Suit, the Smoke Monster from LOST – manage to leave the audience with when they’re not in focus. Bosa is consistently told to us as a bad guy with psychopathic tendencies, but rarely shown as such beyond a few wanton acts of murder and a later, grisly form of torture inflicted on a character which happens entirely off-screen. Having bland protagonists is bad enough, but a so-so villain with constant heralding from the cast about their evilness only makes it all the worse.
Dusted over all of the above is a nutmeg powder of bitter irony, in that the story’s setting is actually really interesting. From Fura’s quasi-aristocratic homeworld of Mazarile to the far reaches of the Empty, from the cramped confines of the Monetta’s Mourn to the alien treasure hoards inside the bauble of the Fang, Alistair Reynolds has made a pretty cool universe which is more fun to explore than the characters who are exploring it. Little notes of worldbuilding – such as the way robots work, how arms can be amputated painlessly, the way space sails work, and how ships communicate with one another through magic alien skulls – enhance the backdrop of Revenger, which makes the disappointment of its shallow characters an even greater tragedy.
That really is the word that keeps leaping to mind with this book – “disappointment”. By all accounts, Alistair Reynolds is an accomplished and respected sci-fi author, with an extensive back catalogue of lauded works, and as noted above there are plenty willing to sing his praises here whilst begging for sequels. For my money, though, Revenger is neither a good book in its own right, nor a good entry for one who, like me, approaches Reynolds' standalone work for the first time. Consign it to the vast black reaches of the Empty.
Revenger is available in bookstores now.
Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Hachette Australia.