Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds. Book review

TERMINAL WORLD by Alastair Reynolds. Gollancz £8.99

Reviewed by Jim Steel

Misleadingly labelled ‘steampunk’, Reynolds’ latest novel is more like the baroque Mars of Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road mixed with a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ preposterousness. It may feature copious amounts of airships and goggles but the subgenre runs only surface-deep here.

Set 10,000 years after Mars has been terraformed (the nature of the world is implicit), it begins in Spearpoint, a city clinging to an orbital tower. Quillon is working as a coroner inNeonHeights, a zone that runs on early twentieth-century technology, and has to flee when his secret past as a genetically-modified ‘angel’ from a higher zone comes to light. He leaves Spearpoint accompanied by Meroka, a foul-mouthed smuggler from the noir-based zone, and they encounter adventures before being rescued by Swarm, a fleet of airships delightfully named after butterflies and commanded by a man with an urge to uncover the lost history of the world. Meanwhile the technological zones move, bringing chaos and death to the world.

It’s a messy novel. After the opening pages the viewpoint stays pretty much with Quillon but this unfortunately means that the other characters have a tendency to speak their thoughts instead of leaving us to deduce them. This renders many of them one-dimensional. The plot itself also comes across as picaresque and feels somewhat rushed towards the end as Swarm attempts to bring help to Spearpoint. There is, for example, a clumsily-executed (in several senses) mutiny that could have been dropped without affecting the novel in the slightest. The barbaric Skullboys and the cybernetic vorgs (a name that unfortunately recalls Star Trek’s Borg) provide the external villains and there is plenty of action to counteract the flaws but the main selling-point must be Reynolds’ delicious world-building.

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