Review: Shadow Captain (Revenger #2) by Alastair Reynolds

There is an image that crops up over and over on old sci-fi book covers and in more contemporary TV shows that I think evokes a particular strand within science fiction. The image is of a skull inside a space helmet or a skeleton within a space suit. It implies death and horror and age but in the context of space and the future. It also highlights a paradox of how we symbolise time.

The paradox is one I have mentioned before with dinosaurs. We use dinosaurs to symbolise what is old an ancient because they are from the past even though that makes them literally younger than us. Likewise the future, symbolised by space traveller, stands in for the new even though the future is necessarily old. A skull in a spacesuit splits the difference, indicating decay and death with the trappings of the future.

The idea of an old future runs through Alastair Reynold’s Shadow Captain. A sequel to 2016’s Revenger, the story continues the piratical adventures of the Ness sisters in a solar system that has a past deeply layered like geological strata. Fragmented and scattered, humanity lives on either mini-planets that use ‘swallowers’ (mini black holes) for gravity or crumbling space habitats. All the major planets have gone and between the remaining micro-worlds solar-sail equipped ships trade and fight.

Shadow Captain flips the narrative from Arafura Ness (the younger sister aka Fura) to Adrana who is still suffering from the attempt by the now dead pirate captain Bosa Sennen. Stuck with an under crewed ship of dread appearance and fearsome reputation, the sisters are struggling with the personal consequences of the previous book. Fura is infected with ‘the glowy’ leading to paranoia and personality changes, while Adrana still feels the after effects of Bosa Sennen’s psychological conditioning.

Events take them to Wheel Strizzardy, a backwater space habitat, where the sisters are drawn into the machinations of a local crime lord as they try to escape the legacy of Bosa Sennen’s murderous reputation.

This is a darker and slower novel that Revenger. The nature of the setting is clearer and the gothic decay of the solar system matches the pirate aesthetics of the plot. Everything is recycled parts and forgotten technology amid betrayals and secrets.

Only in the final part of the novel do we return to the broader arc of the series. What is the nature of the ‘quoins’ that fuel trade between worlds and what accounts for the rise and fall of civilisations on the myriad of tiny worlds?

Dark and twisty. It is a more space-faring take on the idea of an ancient future than, say, The Book of the New Sun but there is a similar sense of antiquity and loss.

12 thoughts on “Review: Shadow Captain (Revenger #2) by Alastair Reynolds

  1. I’m not the world’s biggest Alastair Reynolds fan, but I find that I enjoyed Revenger and Shadow Captain a lot.

    Regarding skeletons/skulls in spacesuits, even I have a skull in spacesuit on the cover of one of my books. It’s not entirely accurate, for while there are corpses floating in space in the story, they are not yet skeletons. But it’s en effective image and with stock art, the selection is normally limited.

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  2. I didn’t like this one as well as Revenger, mainly because I think Arafura is a more interesting character than Adrana, and also because one aspect of the worldbuilding bugs me. That was the fact of all the planets in the solar system being broken up (and also them debating it for 100,000 years) to make the fifty-billion or whatever “worldlets.”

    How could that even be done? And more importantly, why would it be done? I’d sure as heck rather live on a planet then bounce around from worldlet to worldlet like they do.

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    1. Bonnie McDaniel: one aspect of the worldbuilding bugs me. That was the fact of all the planets in the solar system being broken up (and also them debating it for 100,000 years) to make the fifty-billion or whatever “worldlets.”
      How could that even be done? And more importantly, why would it be done? I’d sure as heck rather live on a planet then bounce around from worldlet to worldlet like they do.

      I think that can only be conjecture. They have almost no historical knowledge of that far back. On page 389, it says “Millions of little wrinkled rocks orbited the Old Sun, and if some fraction of them had once been settled, it was so far back in the long history of the Congregation that no legible trace now remained… Such cities that might have once adorned their surfaces had been scoured away millions of years ago… It was proposed by the scholars that a very great proportion of the fifty million worlds had been settled before or during the first and second Occupations”.

      So if the scholars don’t know that for sure, how would they know that breaking up of the planets into 50 million worldlets was a deliberate decision that was debated for 100,000 years? It can only be legend.

      Furthermore [rot13ed for spoilers]:
      Gurl xabj, nccneragyl sebz nepunrbybtvpny rkcybengvba bs gur onhoyrf naq fglyrf bs grpuabybtl naq ynathntrf gurl’ir sbhaq, gung gurer unir orra ng yrnfg 12 pvivyvmngvbaf (Bpphcngvbaf) cevbe gb guvf bar, cyhf nabgure 400 Funqbj Bpphcngvbaf jurer pvivyvmngvba qvq abg “pngpu”. Jvgu gjragl-gjb gubhfnaq lrnef orgjrra rnpu Bpphcngvba, gung’f zber guna avar zvyyvba lrnef. Gurer’f ab jnl gung gurl jbhyq xabj ubj naq jul gur cynargf tbg fznfurq hc — gung nal qrpvcurenoyr erpbeq jbhyq unir erznvarq — sebz 9 zvyyvba lrnef ntb, zhpu yrff gung vg jnf qrongrq sbe 100,000 lrnef.


  3. I enjoyed Revenger but DNFed this book because of its slowness – I was a 1/3 of the way through the book and while character changes had been established, nothing had yet happened, and the book had failed to convince me what was expected to happen was worth my time. It was just a weird slowdown of pacing, given the lack of motivating plot arc to give interest at that point in the series.


  4. I was a bit disappointed by this one, because it does not talk much about Quoins (and the conspiracy behind). It seems it’s back in the center of the soon to be released next book, so !


  5. “It also highlights a paradox of how we symbolise time.”


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  6. The logic behind thinking of dinosaurs as old is that what we’re exposed to is fossils, and the time is usually described as either “100 million years ago” (neither old nor young) or “this fossil is 120 million years old” or “these bones are from a long time ago.” It can also be phrased as “these animals lived when the world was younger,” but even then it’s past tense. If a child asks something like “was T. rex as old as Grandpa?” they’re likely to be told “older than that” rather than “it’s from when the world was young” or “they could live to be very old, but this fossil is of a young dinosaur.”

    Deep time isn’t really comprehensible. Even if “that was when the world was young,” it doesn’t imply that these dinosaurs or redwood fossils are young: if I met someone when I was ten and they were eighty, that doesn’t make them young, either at the time or in my memory. If a fossil is, or could be, the million-times-great grandparent of a tree that I saw in a forest in California, or the great-great-great-(times a million) aunt of an albatross or falcon alive today, so obviously it’s older than the trees or birds living now. “Obvious” doesn’t always mean true, of course, but it’s a reasonable way of looking at the question.


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