Paul Di Filippo reviews Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds (Orbit 978-0316555708, $15.99, 448pp, trade paperback, January 2019)

A person huddles alone in the wreckage of a spaceship, body glowing with strange patterns of light. And all that the person can think of is revenge on those responsible for the situation.

Sounds familiar, right? Good old Gully Foyle in The Stars My Destination. Well, surprisingly, that’s not the book under discussion today. Instead, we turn our attention toward Alistair Reynolds’s Revenger, in which, I am convinced, Reynolds is paying homage to Bester’s famous scene, when he puts his heroine, Fura Ness, in the same predicament. And although there are other small Besterian tinges to the tale, what Reynolds is really doing is channeling some of the great writers from what David Pringle calls the Age of Storytellers–Dickens, Stevenson, Sabatini, Dumas–into space opera form. Layering a veneer of the past onto the future is always a winning technique in my eyes: consider, for example, Wilson’s Julian Comstock, Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, and although it’s alternate history and hence tangential, Levine’s Arabella series. With this somewhat lateral move for him, Reynolds sets a new standard for combining old school blood and thunder with postmodern SF.

Here in ultra-potted form is what happens in Revenger, which we need to know to approach its sequel.

Adrana and Arafura Ness are teenagers with the peculiar rare talent of being Bone Readers: able to bond with the weird quasi-living skulls, carried on spaceships, that transmit messages among the stars. With their family in dire financial straits, and looking to break free of a cloistered existence, they enlist on a ship that is one of the flock of vessels that exist to loot “baubles,” remnants of past civilizations. (Reynolds’s future solar system, rebuilt from the ground up and dubbed the Congregation, is densely, weirdly, and anciently populated.) But on their very first outing they have the misfortune to encounter the worst pirate in the galaxy, Bosa Sennen. Bosa slaughters nearly the entire complement of their ship, kidnaps Adrana, and leaves a hidden Fura in the situation I described above. The rest of the tale is the gradual transformation of Fura into a hard-bitten fury of vengeance, out to rescue her sister and put a stop to Bosa’s depredations. By the end of the novel she has succeeded, taken Bosa’s ship–renamed Revenger–and become a hard-edged but still perceptive and sensitive outlaw. All of this is conveyed through a series of unforgettable, tautly narrated, clever and speculatively wild adventures, narrated by Fura herself.

Shadow Captain opens up three months later, and is recounted by Adrana. Revenger is low on supplies when one of the crew gets hurt in an accident and cannot by healed by onboard facilities. So they have double reasons to find and visit a port that won’t be too fussy about the pirate ship’s legacy. That turns out to be the wheelworld dubbed Strizzardy. Once the Revenger‘s launch touches down (one crewmember, Tindouf, remains onboard the big ship), Fura, Adrana, the wounded Strambli, Prozor, and Surt finds themselves in a kind of Boss Tweed situation. The ruler of this world, Far-Gone Glimmery, has plans of his own for the visitors, and the bulk of the novel is concerned with the cat-and-mouse games between the two factions. Glimmery is also contaminated with the “glowy,” just as Fura is, and that complicates things.

But aside from these personal and low-level shenanigans, there are some broader, even cosmic matters underway. First comes the matter of the cycle of history that the Congregation undergoes, with major paradigm-shifts every 22,000 years. Next is the true nature of the “quoins,” mysterious alien artifacts that serve as money. And lastly is the fact that the entire Congregation is gearing up to nail the Revenger, thinking that Bosa Sessen is still running things. And to a small degree she might be, since Adrana carries in her head a ghostly partial remnant of the pirate–the “shadow captain” of the title.

Not to spoil the suspense, but the Revenger and crew, with some new members, eventually get free of Glimmery and head off into the big unknown–but not before causing chaos in the Congregation–thus setting the stage for the subsequent volume. If I were to hazard a guess, I say this series was planned as a quartet, with another go-round each for the two narrators.

This second installment is a highly entertaining and worthy successor to Revenger, but feels quite different at times. First, it lacks the purity of the arc of the first story, with its clear goal–free Adrana at all costs–and its headlong action. Additionally, we saw many more venues in the opener. The second book feels more diffuse in its events, the crew not so proactive as reactive to Glimmery’s machinations, and the scene is basically confined to Strizzardy, which is by the narrator’s own admission a fairly uninteresting dump. Second, as the older, wiser, calmer sister, Adrana and her voice offer less of a wild, madcap narrative kick. Still, it is useful to get her perspective on things, especially since Fura is being driven mentally off-kilter by her glowy contamination, and might not have made so good a storyteller this time around.

I should also note–and this is generally a Good Thing, I think–that this novel distinctly yet not overwhelmingly echoes certain effects and sensations from the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Those brilliant movies have established such a massive gold standard for how to do the trope of “The Dirty Dozen in Space” that writers are retrofitting the cinematic ambiance into their prose. I would mention here the figure of Lagganvor and his removable, remote-control eye that brings to mind Yondu and his deadly arrow.

But of course any given novel is generally much richer than any given film, in its language and interiorizations of character. Here’s a baroque scene as one example:

When [Bosa Sennen] had killed someone—or was in the process of killing them —she was in the habit of fixing their bodies onto the outside of the hull. If they needed to be kept alive long enough to make her point, she would arrange it—plumbing life-support into a suit, even as that suit was nailed or welded onto the ship’s jagged lines. Garval had been the most recent addition, fixed under the bowsprit spike that projected from the upper jaw—the same spike that eventually did for Bosa herself, when she fell onto it. There were many bodies, though—more than we ever imagined when we first saw her ship. She had been welding and nailing them onto the hull for so long that in places it was three or four layers deep. When my companions peeled those bodies away, breaking them off like scabs of hard-packed rust, they glimpsed the cryptic history of the ship itself. I shuddered to think of the ledger of misery accounted by these corpses, or the length of time that misery had been drawn out.

That’s the pure quill of outré far-future doings that Reynolds and his peers don’t need millions of dollars of CGI to deliver!


Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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