Book review: Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book.  On one side, Reynolds is one of my favorite contemporary authors, and this book clearly served as influence for the successful Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin.  On the other, this title is such a convoluted mess of genres, settings, and characters and their roles, that it gives Neal Stephenson a run for his money.  Unfortunately, without Stephenson’s redeeming futuristic predictions, Terminal City places towards the bottom of my preference for Reynolds’ works.

Quillon is a pathologist in Spearpoint when an angel falls into his lap.  Or to be more precise, onto his dissection table.  However, the angel is not as dead as he seems, and before finally succumbing to the changed environment, he warns Quillon that there are enemies pursuing him.  Spearpoint is a spire, which reaches the top of the atmosphere, and which hosts a city of around thirty million people, living on ledges attached to the core.  There are very distinct sections, defined by environmental conditions called Zones.  As one would climb higher, zones would allow for more advanced technology.  However, human bodies are not accustomed to different zones than what they grew up in, and they would become sick or even die without medication.  The top zone is occupied by angels, highly modified humans with wings.  Quillan was one of them, but he underwent drastic surgeries and medical regime to be able to work in a zone with a technological level more similar to our world.

Now, however, he is on the run, with the help of the local crime boss, who assigns him the girl Meroka as his guide.  They descend the spire and set out on the wilderness beyond, to reach a primitive settlement where Quillon would find refuge.  Along the way, they survive a violent shift in the zone boundaries, and later come across a burning caravan of Skullboys, a group of feral humans straight from a Mad Max movie who didn’t fare as well in the zone storm.  There, they rescue the mother and daughter duo of Kalis and Nimcha.  They both appear to be Tectomancers, witches who can manipulate the zones.  Kalis later tells them that Nimcha was responsible for the zone storm.

Before they get too far, they are set upon more Skullboys, who then try to pass them over to the Vorg, a race of biological cyborgs who absorb biomatter, in particular brains.  Before they are consumed, however, Quillon and his group are rescued by the Swarm, a militaristic group that lives on airships.  Quillon gets entangled in the politics within the Swarm, but he manages to earn the trust of their leader and convinces him to take the air fleet to Spearpoint, where people are dying because they are running out of zone medication, and the zone storm had caused havoc to the zones there.  Swarm has plenty of medication to alleviate the situation.  Quillon’s ulterior motive, though, is to bring Nimcha to the core of the spire, where Nimcha says the Eye of the God is calling her.

The Swarm arrives at Spearpoint during an attack by the Skullboys.  The airship that Quillon is on manages to break through the blockade, and after delivering the medication they make their way into the core of the spire.  There, they learn that the Tectomancers are humans that were genetically engineered to maintain the spire-like structures and control the zones.  Nimcha joins others like her, in suspended animation, inside a machine, where she’d wait for all the slots for Tectomancers to be filled, so that they can together repair damage to the core of Spearpoint, do away with the zones and reconnect the world to the network of other worlds where similar cores function as teleportation gates.  Quillon is sent back to the top of the spire among his kind for treatment, and the others decide to go back into the wilderness to find others like Nimcha and bring them in.

Given the length of the novel, it is amazing how much material Reynolds managed to squeeze in.  From a techno-noir city, through post-apocalyptic wasteland, to a steam-punkish aerial nation, this book has many very distinct settings, each of which is fully fleshed out with its native characters, challenges and adventures.  Terminal City is structured more like Odyssey than traditional fiction in three acts.  The heroes, while showing some limited and short-term agency, are swept away by circumstances beyond their control.  It soon becomes evident that Quillon is the narrator, not the protagonist.  He is more an observer or a guide across a strange new world, and the person closest to a protagonist is Nimcha, who is the only one able to affect the lives of others.

On the topic of Nimcha: even though I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, I fully believe that this book served as inspiration for N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.  We have a young girl who has a genetic predisposition to control a seemingly unstoppable force of nature.  She turns out to carry the legacy of genetical engineering to make certain people the conduits of such power, and these people have been originally created for a different purpose.  Unfortunately, human hubris caused a global cataclysm, and only this girl and others like her can put it all back together.  Replace zones with earthquakes and a broken wormhole gateway with the Moon, and you are left with only superficial differences between these two works.

But I digress.  Reynolds once again delivered impeccable writing that has no hint of ambiguity.  His characters are very well fleshed out, evolve throughout the narrative, and most of them through their own redemption arcs become likable before the end of the book.  It is indeed a wonder how much content the author was able to cram into this novel.  Unfortunately, that’s also the problem.  There is so much going on, so many sights, species and adventures, that the reader can get easily lost.  Even Quillon’s narrative isn’t too straight-forward.  His story greatly interferes with that of Nimcha, and the unresolved questions in his past and future just further muddy the waters.  Even though Terminal World is a standalone novel, a few shorter stories would have been helpful to tie up the loose ends.

Ultimately, for me the novel fell a bit flat.  Maybe there was too much going on and I couldn’t focus on a single element or narrative line, or perhaps because I’m not a fan of post-apocalyptic barbarians, but I didn’t find the book as engrossing as Reynolds’ other works.  It’s still way above average in quality, mainly because of the author’s writing style that suits me so well, but the book remains towards the bottom of my rankings of Reynolds’ books.

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