Book review: Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds

The second book in the Inspector Dreyfus Emergency series brings back the old characters, throws in a couple of new ones and invents not one, but two emergencies for the people policing the ten thousand independent habitats in the Glitter Band.  Reynolds tones down on the technology and dark settings, and instead focuses on characters, their backgrounds and, to some extent, minor redemption arcs.  This makes it the most humane and one of the most approachable books I’ve read from this author.

Two years after the Aurora crisis, which was the topic of the first book, the organization of space police that guards the democratic process in the Glitter Band, Panoply, faces a new crisis.  A populist who calls himself Devon Garlin is spreading the idea that habitats can vote on secession from the Glitter Band political system.  Several societies had already done so, and Panoply, the guardian of democratic voting, is powerless to do anything against it.  Still, some of its operatives are taking this as a personal attack, and none more so than Tom Dreyfus, who has several run-ins with Garlin.

At the same time, however, a mysterious plague is literally frying people’s brains.  None of the cases has any overt connection to the others, but the numbers are growing on an exponential curve, and it is only a matter of time when general panic would take hold.  Panoply tries to quietly investigate the plague but is stymied by Garlin who learns about it and starts spreading rumors.  One of the investigators is Thalia Ng, a protégé of Dreyfus, and she figures out the connection: an underground body modification clinic with ties to Garlin’s family.  The Panoply operatives search the clinic, find a video of Garlin posing as one of the doctors on the clinic, and through some clandestine dealings, they obtain a list of the hospital’s former clients.  Panoply arrests Garlin and takes all the clients into isolation, but the deaths start growing more rapidly.

Inserted between the chapters of this narrative is a story of two boys, how they grow up and train to be the next generation of the Vos family.  Their predecessor built the voting apparatus that allows for the purest form of direct democracy in the Glitter Band and tasked her family to be guardians of that democracy.  Through undetectable backdoors they can alter key votes, but also affect the functioning of machinery or even thoughts of anyone and anything connected to the overall computer network.  The story of these two boys ends when they kill their mother and split, one leaving the Glitter Band and the other staying with their father.

Back in present time, a group of Panoply prefects descends on a planetoid belonging to the Vos family, where they find Garlin’s twin brother who nobody knew about.  Dreyfus joins them after he realizes that these are the Vos twins, and in a twist ending he finds their true identities.  The perpetrator of the plague then monologues on his motives and reveals that his mind contains a kill switch that would kill all the remaining victims if he is killed.

The first half of the book is a standard detective story, where the reader follows along and tries to figure out what’s going on.  Then, however, the reader gets ahead of the protagonists, realizes the twist ending, and only remains curious about how the book’s characters find out.  The ending monologue then throws in a very surprising side story that none of the book even hinted at, making the first two acts feel somewhat superfluous.  Parallel stories taking place in different times, converging to a single reveal, are also not unheard of, and while this one is relatively well written, it doesn’t reach the qualities of Banks’ Use of Weapons.  Story-wise, this book was below my expectations for a novel by Alastair Reynolds.

However, I was truly surprised by the quality of the characters.  Dreyfus, Ng and a handful of others were introduced in the previous book, and unlike in many sequels from other authors, they still grow in personality here.  They are also still affected by the events in the previous book, for better or for worse.  The new characters have their own well-rounded backstories and motives.  Character interaction is unusually strong and believable for the Revelation Space universe, and I enjoyed it a lot.  (One particular thing that made me appreciate the characters even more than I would have otherwise is that I could easily assign known actors to them.  For example, I pictured Dreyfus as played by Stephen Rea, and he immediately became even more likable.  That’s just a personal preference, though.)

As usual, Reynolds is exceptionally strong in worldbuilding.  There are few new habitats to explore, but the depiction of the quickmatter (a sludge of nanobots that can take any shape and hardness) and the afterlife simulation greatly enrich the story.  The final reveal also adds to the culture of the Glitter Band and opens the possibilities for future side stories.

Technically, however, this is not the author’s strongest story.  Maybe it’s the focus on the softer side of science fiction, but I found the language to be less efficient and precise as in his other books.  There are cases of misunderstanding between the characters, and miscommunication plays a major role.  I felt that Reynolds was either experimenting with a slightly more approachable writing style or his publisher told him to tone down his language to attract larger audience.

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