Returning to the universe of Revenger, award-winning author Alastair Reynolds delivers another thrilling tale set among the stars.
Two sisters ran away from home to join the crew of a spaceship. They took on pirates, faced down monsters and survived massacres...and now they're in charge. Captaining a fearsome ship of their own, adventures are theirs for the taking. But Captain Bosa's fearsome reputation still dogs their heels, and they're about to discover that, out in space, no one forgives, and no one forgets....
Release date: February 4, 2020
Print pages: 640
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—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Shadow Captain
“Shadow Captain does what a great sequel should do: it builds upon, rather than replicates, the earlier work while escalating the drama and upping the stakes.… The worlds’-shattering conclusion has us very much looking forward to our next voyage with the Ness sisters.”
—B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
“Comparisons to Dune abound.… At a time when large-scale SF is flourishing, Absolution Gap is as good as it gets, and should solidify Alastair Reynolds’s reputation as one of the best hard SF writers in the field.”
“A book of great fascination, rich description, and memorable action.”
—Locus on Absolution Gap
“Reynolds writes a lean and muscular prose where the intense action scenes are leavened with the kind of bright, shining, mind-boggling science talk that characterizes the best of post-modern space opera.”
—Science-Fiction Weekly on Absolution Gap
“Alastair Reynolds continues his rise to the top of… SF.… Revelation, Redemption, Absolution… Reynolds provides them all.”
—Guardian on Absolution Gap
“Fulfills all the staggering promise of [Reynolds’s] earlier books, and then some.… A landmark in hard SF space opera.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Absolution Gap
“An entertaining science fiction tale.… The story line contains several brilliantly developed concepts… an intriguing look at religion, war, societies, and economics in outer space.”
—Midwest Book Review on Absolution Gap
“Clearly one of the year’s major science fiction novels.… The book Reynolds’s readers have been waiting for.”
—Locus on Redemption Ark
“[A] tour de force.… Ravishingly inventive.”
—Publishers Weekly on Revelation Space
“An adroit and fast-paced blend of space opera and police procedural, original and exciting, teeming with cool stfnal concepts. A real page turner. The prefect of the title is sort of a space cop, Sipowicz in a space suit, or maybe Dirty Harry with a whiphound.”
—George R. R. Martin on The Prefect
“[Reynolds is] one of the most gifted hard SF writers working today.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on Beyond the Aquila Rift
“[Reynolds is] a mastersinger of the space opera.”
—The Times on Blue Remembered Earth
“A swashbuckling thriller—Pirates of the Caribbean meets Firefly—that nevertheless combines the author’s trademark hard SF with effective, coming-of-age characterization.”
—Guardian on Revenger
“Revenger is classic Reynolds—that is to say, top-of-the-line science fiction, where characters are matched beautifully with ideas and have to find their place in a complex future. More!”
“A leading light of the New Space Opera movement in science fiction.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“A fascinating hybrid of space opera, police procedural, and character study.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Prefect
“One of the giants of the new British space opera.”
“It’s grand, involving, and full of light and wonder. Poseidon’s Wake is one of the best sci-fi novels of the year.”
“Reynolds blends AIs, mysterious aliens, intelligent elephants, and philosophical ruminations on our place in the universe in a well-paced, complex story replete with intrigue, invention, and an optimism uncommon in contemporary SF.”
—Guardian on Poseidon’s Wake
“Few SF writers merge rousing adventure with advanced futuristic technology as skillfully as Alastair Reynolds.”
—Toronto Star on On the Steel Breeze
“Reynolds is a master of the slow buildup leading to apocalyptic action, and On the Steel Breeze is no exception.”
—National Space Society
“His writing mixes spartan style, provocative ideas, and flashes of dark humor.… Reynolds excels at weaving different threads together.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books on Slow Bullets
“Alastair Reynolds is a name to watch.… Shades of Banks and Gibson with gigatons of originality.”
—Guardian on Revelation Space
“If you like hard SF… with fast-paced action and hard-boiled characters… you’re in for a great ride.”
—SF Site on Redemption Ark
“Reynolds has a galaxy-sized imagination allied to a real storytelling ability.”
—Bernard Cornwell on Blue Remembered Earth
“Heir to writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Reynolds keeps up the tradition of forward thinking.… An immensely thrilling, mind-bending piece of work.”
—The A.V. Club on House of Suns
“Reynolds takes quests for vengeance and redemption and places them on a galactic stage.”
—Locus on Redemption Ark
It had begun as a distant glimmering dot; now it was unmistakably a world.
At the front of the rocket launch, from her control position behind the forward windows, Fura Ness tried to fly exactly like any other prospective visitor. Too confident in her approach, and she would draw attention to herself. Too cautious, and she would look as if she had something to hide.
Which—of course—she did.
The sweep was bouncing range-location pings against the outer shell of Mulgracen. A dial showed their closing speed, now down to just six thousand spans per second.
“That will do nicely,” Lagganvor said, as he leant over her shoulder to study the instrument board.
Fura took her time answering. She flipped a switch or two, worked a lever, tapped her nail against a sticky gauge.
“This ain’t my first approach, Lag.”
Lagganvor’s reflection smiled back from the burnished metal of the console.
Fura applied a little more counterthrust, dropping them to five thousand five hundred spans per second. They were threading through the orbits of other ships gathered around Mulgracen that ranged from little runabouts like their own to fully-rigged sailing vessels, albeit all close-hauled so near to the gravity well of a swallower.
“All this way for a pile of bones,” Prozor said, in a familiar complaining tone.
“Bones we happen to need,” Fura answered.
Prozor rubbed the dent in her head where a metal plate had been put in. “You need ’em, girlie. The rest of us is quite satisfied never goin’ near those horse-faced horrors.”
“I share your reservations,” Lagganvor said, directing a confiding smile at Prozor. “But I also appreciate the need for up-to-date intelligence. Without a viable skull, we’re operating blind.”
“And this intelligence,” Prozor said. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with gov’m’nt men turnin’ over every rock in the Congregation to look for us, would it? Gov’m’nt coves with ships and guns and undercover agents and plenty of intelligence of their own?”
Lagganvor scratched at his chin. “It might.”
“Then why in all the worlds is we… goin’ anywhere near a world?”
“We’ve been over this,” Adrana Ness said, turning to face Prozor from the seat immediately behind her sister’s control position. “It’s all very well keeping to the margins, picking off other ships for essential supplies—that’s served us well enough since The Miser. But it’s not sustainable. We’ve only adopted piracy as a temporary measure, not a business for life.”
Prozor nodded at the forward windows, where Mulgracen was now large enough for surface details to be visible. “And offerin’ our necks on the choppin’ board by voluntarily going to a world—that’s meant to be an improvement?”
“It has to be done,” Fura said, sighing hard. “None of the skulls we’ve found on other ships were worth a spit by the time we got our hands on them. So we’ve no choice but to shop. But I ain’t taking silly risks. Mulgracen’s a long way out and there’s no likelihood that anyone will be expecting us. It won’t be like Wheel Strizzardy…”
“The risk was supposed to be contained there as well,” Prozor said.
“It was,” Fura answered through gritted teeth. “Just not contained enough.”
Mulgracen was a laceworld, orbiting the Old Sun in the Thirty-Fourth Processional. It was neither entirely hollow, like a shellworld, nor entirely solid, like a sphereworld. It was, instead, a sort of sugary confection, made up of many thin and brittle layers, each nested delicately within each other and inter-penetrated by voids, shafts and vaults through which a ship could move nearly as freely as in open space. The outer surface—from which the launch was bouncing its range-finding pulses—was only loosely spherical. There were gaps in it, some of which were whole leagues across. Between these absences were irregular plates of uninterrupted surface, some of them joined by thick necks of connecting material and some by only the narrowest, most perilous-looking of isthmuses. Nowhere was this surface layer more than a tenth of a league thick, and in places it was considerably thinner. Little domed communities, never more than a quarter of a league across, spangled against the firmer-looking bits of surface. Now and then a tiny train moved between them; a luminous worm hurrying through a glassed-over tube.
With their speed reduced to just five hundred spans per second, Fura dropped the launch down through one of the larger gaps. The thickness of the surface plate swept up past them, and then they were into what was technically the interior of Mulgracen. There was little sense of confinement. In many directions it was still possible to see stars, as well as a dozen or so nearer worlds and the purple-ruby glimmer of the greater Congregation. Beneath them, about a league below, was a smaller broken surface, ornamented with domes and the fine, glistening threads of railway lines. There were domes and lines above them as well, for there were communities attached to the underside of the outer shell, as well as to its outer surface. Only the thinnest of connecting structures bridged the two layers, and it seemed quite impossible that these feeble-looking columns and walls could support anything, let alone many square leagues of habitable ground.
But they did, and they had, and they would. Mulgracen was already millions of years old, and it been claimed and lost and re-claimed many times during the long cycles of civilisational collapse and rebirth that made up the recorded history of the Congregation.
Fura dropped their speed further still. Traffic was thick all the way into Mulgracen. Rocket launches were coming and going in all directions, with little regard for any sort of organised flow. Cargo scows and rocket tugs growled by on their slow, ponderous business. For every ship about the size of their own launch, though, there must have been ten or twenty smaller craft that were only used for shuttling within and around the world, and these seemed even more cavalier about navigational etiquette. They were nosey about it, too, swerving close to the launch and only breaking off at the last second. The anti-collision alarm was going off so frequently that in the end Fura cuffed it into silence.
They went down another level. Only now was it getting hard to see any clear part of space, and the communities at these depths had to rely on artificial lights at all times of day. There were more of them, packed more closely together, and in places the towns had merged so thoroughly that they were now merely the districts of city-sized settlements, easily the rival of anything on the Ness sisters’ homeworld. The domed-over buildings were huge, multi-storied affairs, and their windows so numerous that they seemed to emanate a soothing golden glow of comfort and prosperity. Carved animals reared up from roof-lines, picked out by spotlights; neon advertisements flickered on the buildings’ sides, traffic lights threw red and green hues across pavements and intersections. People were still too small to see except as moving dots—even the trams and buses were like tiny gaming pieces—but it was not hard to imagine being down there, dressed for the season and strolling along lovely marbled boulevards lined with grand shop windows and no shortage of enticing places to dine and dance.
Fura looked at her sister, wondering if Adrana felt any pangs of homesickness at this spectacle of bustling civilisation.
“I’d forgotten—” Adrana began.
“—how pretty things could be,” Fura finished darkly, and her sister met her eyes and gave the merest nod of mutual understanding. “How nice decent society looks, from the outside. How pleasant and inviting. How ready to accommodate our every wish. How devious and deceitful! It’s a trap, sister, and we ain’t falling for it.”
“I didn’t say I was about to.”
Fura slowed them again. They descended through the gap between two domes, then continued on down through the thickness of another layer, until they emerged beneath its underside. There was one more layer below, totally enveloped in a single glowing mass of buildings. That was the closest settlement to the swallower, which was somewhere deep inside that final sphere. They didn’t need to go quite that deep, though, which pleased Fura as it meant a little less expenditure of fuel.
“There,” Lagganvor said, jabbing a finger at the windows. “The landing wheel.”
Fura had been forewarned about the arrangements, but that did not make her any less apprehensive as she brought them in for the final approach. The landing structure was a very odd sort of amenity. It was like a carnival wheel, jutting down from a slot in the ceiling, so that only the lower two thirds of it was visible, turning sedately. There were platforms on the rim of this wheel, each large enough to hold a ship, and some cogs or counterweights kept them level even as the wheel rotated, lifting the ships up into the slot and the hidden part of their rotational cycle.
A third of the platforms were empty. Fura selected one and brought them in belly-first, toggling down the launch’s undercarriage and cutting the jets at the last moment. She’d chosen the rising part of the wheel, and it did not take long for its rotation to take them into the slot and up to the apex, where ships moved through an enclosed reception area on their smoothly rising and descending platforms. Fura and her crew were not yet ready to leave the ship, and they were already descending by the time they had completed their suit preparations and gathered in the main lock.
“Names and back-stories?” Fura asked.
“Drilled into us so hard I might be in danger of forgettin’ my actual name,” Prozor answered. “Come to mention it… what is my actual name?”
“Doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t slip up,” Fura said.
Prozor knelt to squeeze some oil into a knee-joint.
“Anyone would think you wasn’t overly sympathetic, girlie.”
“I’m not.” Fura knuckled the chin-piece of her brass-coloured helmet. “I’m sympathetic to my neck, and to keeping it attached to something. And that means sticking to our roles.”
“I think we are tolerably prepared,” Lagganvor said. “Now, may we discuss the division of chores? I think I would be most effective, and speedy, if I were permitted to operate independently. Obviously I can’t help with the procurement of a new set of bones, but the other items on our shopping list…”
“The sisters can take care of the shivery stuff,” Prozor said. “You can stick tight by me, Lag, seeing as you know the terrain.”
“I have been here once, dear Proz; that hardly makes me qualified to write a tourist brochure.”
They made a last-minute inspection of each other’s suits. By then the platform was just coming back round to the apex. Fura opened the lock and they tramped down the access ramp with their luggage, onto the platform’s gridded metal surface. At the edge they waited for the platform to come into line with the fixed surface of the reception chamber, and then stepped briskly from one to the other. It was a nimble operation, but no crew who had just come in from a string of bauble expeditions would be fazed by such a test. From there it was a short walk into a reception lock, after which it was possible to remove their helmets.
They found themselves at the back of a shuffling line of crews being questioned by immigration clerks and revenue men. The room was full of low murmuring, bored questioning, the occasional stamp of a document. Once or twice a clerk stuffed some papers into a pneumatic tube that took them further up the administrative hierarchy.
The line moved sluggishly. Fura and the others put down their luggage and nudged it along with their boots as another crew joined the line behind them, and then another.
It was brazen, just being here. They had avoided any contact with civilisation for months. Nor was Mulgracen some outlaw world, where a blind eye might be turned. It was prosperous, long-established, well-connected: unusually so, given its orbit within the Frost Margins. It did a lot of trade, and that was the crux of Fura’s gamble: she had been relieved, not disheartened, when she saw how many other ships were coming and going, and it pleased her now to be at the back of a grumbling, slow-moving queue.
From behind them a gruff voice raised a complaint as one of the clerks abandoned their desk and left a “closed” sign, forcing two lines to converge into one.
“You did well,” Fura whispered to Adrana.
Adrana dipped her nose, looking at Fura over the bridge of her spectacles. “High praise.”
“For once I wasn’t the one making the choices. It’s good for you to show a little… initiative… now and then.”
“Don’t think too highly of me. All I did was pick a world we could reach that wasn’t too far in and had a halfway decent selection of bone shops.” She glanced back at the crew behind them, who were grumbling about the closed desk. “Any other benefits are… incidental.”
“Incidental or otherwise, they’ll serve us nicely.” Fura dropped her voice. “I’d say ‘well done, sister,’ but perhaps it’s about time we slipped into character.”
“Whatever you say, Captain.”
The line moved in fits and starts, and after about thirty minutes it was their turn to be questioned. Fura put their papers onto the table and stood with a hand on her hip, affecting a look of mild but compliant impatience. She was still wearing her vacuum suit, and for once she had a full sleeve and glove over her artificial hand, instead of the pressure-tight cuff she normally wore.
“Captain… Tessily… Marance,” said the clerk, a heavy-jowled man with a persistent low cough. “Captain Tessily Marance. Tessily Marance.”
“Don’t wear it out,” Fura said.
He held one of her papers, squinting as he compared the photograph with her face.
“In from the Empty, are you?”
“No law against it.”
He licked his fingertips, turning pages quickly.
“Where was your ship registered?”
“It’s about four hundred spans long, with rooms inside and lots of sails and rigging.”
He looked at her with a stone-faced absence of humour.
“The world, not the ship.”
“Why, are you planning a holiday? All right, Indragol. It’s a cesspit down in the Twenty-Eighth. Tubeworld. Besides the Grey Lady, the only other good thing to come out of it was my father…”
“Darjan. Darjan Marance.”
He shifted his gaze onto Adrana. “Who is she?”
“She can speak for herself,” Fura said.
Adrana looked down her nose at him. “Tragen Imbery.”
“Sympathetic.” Adrana leaned in and added, in a near-whisper: “That’s a Bone Reader, you know.”
He held up a different page. “Take off your spectacles.”
Adrana complied, staring at him with a fierce, level gaze. He continued holding up the page, frowning slightly, and beckoned one of his colleagues over. The first clerk handed the papers to the second, murmuring something in regard to Adrana. The second clerk sat down and began going through their papers with a heightened attentiveness, taking out a pocket magnifier and consulting a reference document, presumably looking for tiny flaws in their forged credentials. Meanwhile, the first clerk began asking Prozor and Lagganvor questions.
Off to one side of the desk, a small flickerbox was showing successive grainy images of the faces of various felons and persons of interest.
Fura started to sweat. She had thought that being combative and surly might help her case, because it was the last thing anyone would expect if the actual Ness sisters were trying to sneak their way through immigration. Now she was starting to wonder if she had taken the wrong tack.
The second clerk leaned into the first and cupped a hand to his mouth. The first clerk scratched at a roll of jowl and reached for an empty pneumatic tube canister. He was beginning to curl some of Fura’s papers up, preparing to stuff them into the tube.
“Did you say Darjan Marance?” asked the gruff voice from behind them.
Fura turned around with an imperious lack of haste. “What if I did, cove?”
“Darjan Marance took two hundred leagues of triple-filament yardage from us, down in Graubund. An’ he never came back with payment.” The speaker—a tall, scar-cheeked, rough-voiced woman with a stiff brush of green hair—shook her head in mocking disbelief. “I never believed this day would come. Been keeping eyes and ears out for Marance’s crew these last ten years in case we crossed paths, but I never thought you’d be so stupid as to use your own name, right in front of me.” She pushed forward, interposing herself between Prozor and Lagganvor, and pointed at the clerks. “She’s a thief. I don’t care if it was her father stole that yardage, she inherits the crime—she and her whole scummy crew.” She waggled her finger. “You don’t go letting ’em into Mulgracen. They’ll be out and away before I see them again. You get ’em locked up now, and I’ll fill out any papers you need me to, laying out what she owes us.”
Lagganvor raised his hands, smiling hard. “My dear… Captain? Perhaps we might come to an… amicable settlement? If there has been some… entirely innocent confusion? I’m not reliably acquainted with the current rate for triple-filament yardage, but I should think six hundred bars might be not unfair recompense, for any grievous… misunderstanding?”
The green-haired woman gave a derisive snort. “Six hundred bars, cove? Is that some sort of joke? Have you any idea what six hundred bars’ll get you, nowadays?”
Lagganvor grinned desperately. “Presumably… not quite enough to settle this matter?”
“Arrest them, all of them,” the green-haired captain said. “I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s not about the money, it’s the principle. I don’t mind if I have to take two hours or six setting down our side of the story…”
Behind her, her crew began to groan. Clearly they had other plans for the day.
The first clerk looked from the green-haired captain to Adrana, then back to Fura. He leaned over and confided something to his colleague. The second clerk shook his head ruefully, pinched at the corners of his eyes, then pushed himself up from the desk. The jowly clerk still had the semi-bundled papers, nearly ready to go into the canister. He hesitated for a second, then flattened them out again, before reaching for his stamping tool and punching his way through each of their sets of personal documents. “You’re lucky, Captain Marance,” he said, eyeing Fura. “Normally we take a very dim view of such allegations.”
Fura looked at the clock above the clerk’s position. It was only twenty minutes off noon, and more than likely that was the end of the clerk’s shift. Perhaps his colleague’s, as well. The last thing either of them wanted was to activate a process that involved additional checks, more paperwork, superiors, interview rooms and so on, all on the doubtful say-so of a crew whose past might be equally blemished.
“She’s got the wrong Marance,” Fura said, but with a touch more politeness than before. “I’m… grateful not to be delayed, all the same.”
“Spend your quoins while you can,” the clerk said, handing back their papers.
“That was a good try, earlier on,” Adrana said to Lagganvor, as they ascended to street level. They were alone in a cramped elevator car, squeezed in with their luggage around their legs, while Fura and Prozor took the next car along.
“A good try?”
“About it making sense to go off on your own.”
Lagganvor’s living eye gleamed with vain amusement. The other—the duller, glassier eye—stared through her with a supercilious indifference.
“I was only thinking of making the best use of our time.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder, almost affectionately, and allowed her fingers to wander to his collar. They were not wearing vacuum suits now. They had taken them off, leaving them at an office on the same level as the immigration department, and changed into the ordinary clothes they had brought for their time in Mulgracen. Adrana’s knuckles brushed against the stubbled side of his cheek and Lagganvor smiled, but not without a certain wariness. Then she pushed her hand behind his neck, seized a thick clump of his shoulder-length hair, and twisted it hard.
“Bringing you here was a risk,” she said, as Lagganvor squirmed and grimaced. “But less of a risk than leaving you on the ship, where you could easily signal your masters.”
“Signalling my masters,” he said through gritted teeth, “is a thing I do for your benefit, not my own. While they know I am alive and monitoring you, they are content and not attempting a long-range kill.”
“That logic works while we’re out in space,” Adrana said, still clutching his hair, and still twisting it. “But now we’re on a world, I thought you might start having other ideas. Like calling in the reinforcements to take us alive, while we’re preoccupied with shopping.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Be sure you don’t. We’ll be sticking together like glue, Lag. Just you and me. And if you so much as raise an eyebrow in the wrong direction, never mind anything to do with that eye of yours, I’ll tell Fura exactly what you are.”
“That… might not go down very well for either of us.”
“She’ll understand why I had to shelter you.”
“I’m glad you have such faith in your sister’s continued capacity for reasonableness,” Lagganvor said, reaching up to dislodge her hand. “Me, I might need a little more persuading.” He sighed and looked her hard in the eyes. “You can trust me not to go against my word. I signalled them twenty days ago, feeding them an erroneous position and heading; they won’t be expecting another update until we’re long clear of Mulgracen. They have no knowledge of your whereabouts here, nor your plans beyond it.” He caught his reflection in the elevator’s side and began to fuss with his fringe. “Incidentally… what are those plans?”
“I think it would be for the best,” Adrana said, “if those plans stayed between Fura and I. Just for now. Oh, and Brysca?”
He blinked, discomfited by the use of his real name.
“You’re quite right; I wouldn’t take a chance with Fura. It’d be far less trouble to kill you myself.”
They met at the top of the elevator shafts, at the five-fold intersection of Virmiry Square, which was itself near the centre of Strenzager City, one of the larger conurbations at this level of Mulgracen. Fura craned her neck back, taking her first proper breath since she left Revenger. A city’s flavours filled her lungs. Brake dust, pavement dirt, animal grease, monkey sweat, hot oil, electric fumes, kitchen smells, sewerage stink, the vinegar-tang of a drunk stumbling out of a nearby bar, the steam of an all-night laundry. It was a sort of poison, taken in extremis, but after months in space breathing nothing that had not been reprocessed through the vegetable membranes of lightvine, nothing that did not taste subtly, pervasively green and slightly stale, it was as fine and thrilling to her senses as a perfumery or chocolatier. She had missed the smell of cities. She had missed the smell of worlds, of life.
She had better not start getting used to it.
“One drink,” she declared, “then we split up. Adrana and I will cover different bone shops, since it’s far too risky to be seen together while being open about our talents. We’ll stay in touch by squawk and meet when we’ve got something to discuss. But I do need a drink, and—”
“Something’s happening,” Adrana said, nodding beyond the nearby bar.
A group of people were gathering at the corner of one of the intersections where the five main boulevards met Virmiry Square. They were pressing together, almost like a throng of theatre-goers waiting for the doors to open. Above them rose a grand edifice with complicated ornamental stonework and numerous floors. It might have been a huge department store, or perhaps the head offices of an insurance firm. At the back of the gathering a small child was hopping up and down to get a better look at whatever was going on.
Adrana stepped between trams and joined the rear of the gathering, Fura, Lagganvor and Prozor close behind. Adrana was craning to look up at something. There was a slow-rising scream, like some kind of siren starting up.
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