The Prefect - Alistair Reynolds
When is a standalone novel not a standalone novel? It's hard to tell with Reynolds; so many of his stories have been set in the same universe that I now find it impossible to judge how well his books would work without the existing background. The Prefect is not supposed to be part of a series, but it is sort of a prequel to Chasm City (another standalone in the Revelation Space universe), and there are dangers both for those who have read Chasm City and for those who haven't. But more on that in a minute.
By "prequel", I don't mean that this book features any of Chasm City's characters, merely that it is set in the Yellowstone system at the height of the Demarchist Golden Age, some years before the advent of the Melding Plague. The Rust Belt of Chasm City's time, with its rotting hulks of corrupted space habitats, is still the glorious and prosperous Glitter Band, and this is where the story takes place. Dreyfus is a Prefect, one of the Glitter Band's law enforcement agents, whose job mostly involves stamping out voting fraud - a heinous crime to the ultra-democratic Demarchists. A routine investigation into a destroyed space station exposes a plot by enemies within and without, who plan to overthrow the democratic system and replace it with tyranny; Dreyfus has to find allies in unusual places to stop this menace before it's too late.
The plot is much better paced than many of Reynolds' other books, but the structure is also more simplistic and there's not a whole lot of suspense or surprise. We find out very early on who the inside betrayer is and what the bad guys' motives are, so the rest of the book involves just watching the action play out. The gradually-revealed background details (Calvin Sylveste and the Eighty, the Lascaille Shroud, the distantly-foreseen threat of plague) are not new to anyone who's read other Reynolds books, but don't seem to be explained enough for anyone who hasn't. There are some new and interesting ideas, notably the deadly and mysterious Clockmaker, but a lot of these seem to exist merely to show the Glitter Band's pre-plague dependency on nanotech, and some look rather contrived.
So, is it worth a read? I'd say it is; the plot is nothing special but there's enough inventiveness here to keep you entertained for a good while, and it's interesting to have a picture of life before the plague. I'm not sure that it works as a standalone - it's begging for a sequel, and I'd recommend reading Chasm City first - but if you're already familiar with the Revelation Space universe, then this is a good one to pick up. And it's certainly better than Absolution Gap.