The Inhibitors series - Alistair Reynolds
Alistair Reynolds seems to have the perfect mix for a SF writer - he can string a good sentence together and he knows his astrophysics, he has great ideas, interesting (if slightly irritating) characters and can do Grand Space Opera without fluffing the science. On reading the first of these books, I thought I'd discovered a wonderful new author with a promising series... and yet, only three books later, I've already taken them to the charity shop and decided not to buy any more. What happened?
The story begins in Revelation Space... well, actually it doesn't, and here lies the first of the flaws. Reynolds has been developing his universe for some time now, and much of this has been in short story form. There is a long backstory about mankind's colonisation of the solar system and beyond and the development of various spacefaring cultures, none of which is absolutely essential to the story at hand, but which Reynolds tends to reference with an assumption that we know what he's talking about. But anyway. Revelation Space otherwise sets up the series nicely with a tale of dead alien cultures, mutant space captains and a very nasty answer to the question "Is there anybody out there? And if not, why not?"
Skipping over Chasm City*, it's not until the next book that the cracks really start to show. Here, we don't just have background inserted from the short-story prequels, we have a bunch of the characters too, carrying on the feuds that they started in a completely different set of stories. I never particularly liked Clavain anyway, so was most annoyed to see him pop up in a novel set hundreds of years after he was supposed to have died. The writing was still good, but the plot was not at all memorable - apart from Volyova trying to rescue people from a planet in a big ship because she felt guilty about her past crimes (Redemption Ark, geddit?) and Clavain (yawn) fighting some cartoon evil chick, I have very little recollection of what this one was about. Still, big space battles, reluctant assassins, Hell-class weaponry and the universe on the verge of extinction - plenty to keep me going, and certainly not enough to put me off the series.
Absolution Gap started off slightly suspiciously, with some rather deus ex machina magically acquired weaponry and a fatuous continuation of the Clavain/wotsername feud, but it picks up soon afterwards. Leaving the main characters and plot strand behind, the story moves across the galaxy to a holy moon where giant moving cathedrals continually circle the equator, keeping in sight of the gas giant which it orbits, a gas giant which has been known to mysteriously vanish (hence the holiness). Clearly, there are some great powers here and may be what Our Heroes need to defeat the Nasty Baddies. This part of the story follows a girl with the uncanny ability to tell when someone is lying to her (suspiciously similar to Asimov's Nemesis, but never mind) who is trying to uncover the dark secret of the cathedrals. This goes on in fine form until about 9/10 of the way through the book, at which point you start thinking "how on earth is he going to get the story all wrapped up in the few pages that are left?", at which point the rest of the characters turn up, there's a fight, some explosions, and hey presto! Everything's OK and the universe is safe. What?
I'm really not sure what happened to Reynolds' writing here. Maybe he'd painted himself into a corner and really didn't know how to get out of it without inventing new galactic superpowers to save the day. Maybe he was under pressure to churn out a book a year and didn't have time to edit it properly. Either way, Absolution Gap has one of the worst and most contrived endings I've ever read. Such a shame; not only is the book ruined, but all the suspense of the entire series is blown because you know it has such a trite conclusion. To anyone thinking of reading these books - stop at the end of Revelation Space and pretend that's where it's all resolved, because otherwise it's just frustrating.
Revelation Space: 8/10
Redemption Ark: 6/10
Absolution Gap: 4/10
*This was actually Reynolds' next book and is set in the same universe, but has a stand-alone plot so I'm not including it here. Plus, it's the only one that didn't go to Oxfam so I'll probably review it when I re-read it next.