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Absolution Gap

by Alastair Reynolds

(Gollancz, £12.99, 565 pages, hardback, published 27 November 2003. Mass market paperback: Gollancz, 6.99, 662 pages, 13 May 2004.)

Twenty years have passed since the events of Redemption Ark, and Clavain, Scorpio and several thousand refugees from Resurgam are still cover scancamped out on the oceanic world of Ararat. Meanwhile the Inhibitors have continued their advance across human space, pushing back a defiant wave of Conjoiners. The secret of the Conjoiners' defence against the Inhibitors is Aura, the more-than-human daughter of Ana Khouri, late of the 'Nostalgia for Infinity' ... When Khouri splashes down on Ararat, the 'Infinity's' resting place, demanding help to get her daughter back from the Conjoiners, a chain of events is forged that will take the 'Infinity' and its passengers from Ararat to the miraculous world of Hela. Miraculous, because the gas giant it orbits periodically winks out of existence, to be replaced for a fraction of a second by something very strange indeed. Miraculous, because it may provide humanity with the means to defeat the Inhibitors.

Reynolds' epic space opera ends on something of a muted note. Redemption Ark seems more melancholic on the whole than its predecessors, not least in the sombre pacing of the bulk of the book. Like the Adventist cathedrals on Hela inching their way towards the titular abyss, Gap rolls at a stately but unrelenting measure towards its precipitous conclusion, although it doesn't exactly end with a crash. The ending, in best Reynolds tradition, doesn't offer an absolute resolution so much as a transformation into something new; some readers may, however, be disappointed by the absence of a definite slam-bang conclusion to the Inhibitors saga. Personally, I found the ending satisfyingly devious, and that's worth a dozen hearty explosions in my book.

The thing I like most about Reynolds' fiction is that he genuinely conveys a sense of the scale of it all, particularly of the time it would take for an interstellar tale of this sort to unfold. Constrained (I'm loath to say "limited") to travel at relativistic speeds, the story spans a century of objective time, which by extension gives a much better feel of the distances involved than would a two-hour hop to the star system next door. It's gratifying that Reynolds' ideas are sufficiently large-scale to do justice to the vast canvas on which they are drawn, and even in this final volume in the saga there's new and astonishing ideas a-plenty.

The characterisation is as good as ever, and there is a fantastic new grotesque double act in Quaiche and Grelier, the duo responsible for establishing the Adventist faith on Hela. Strangely, the characters who come off as the most human are the non-humans: Scorpio, the man-pig hybrid, who discovers new strengths in himself as he attempts to govern the humans in his care; and the 'Nostalgia for Infinity', a.k.a. Captain John Brannigan, whose fitting swansong this novel is. Reynolds' Gothic tendencies are also in full display here, in the 'Infinity' and in Hela's cathedrals (what better setting for Gothicism than a cathedral?), and in the machinations of the mysterious "shadows" ...

Absolution Gap is not without its faults, chief among them the sudden hurtle to the end in the last few chapters, which seems rather abrupt after five hundred pages of leisurely, atmospheric prose. Overall, though, an excellent final volume in the story of the Inhibitors. Reynolds has clearly hit his stride now, and it'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Review by John Toon.

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