Review of Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

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Reynolds is one of the foremost hard science fiction authors around these days and anything he writes is worth reading. Most of his previous work is set out in space, a looong way in the future, peopled with enigmatic, post-human characters. However, his writing style appears to be changing – Century Rain was set far closer to home and Floyd, the main protagonist, was sufficiently complex yet familiar to make me really care what would happen to him. In Terminal World, Reynolds gives us Quillon, another intriguing, likeable character with his own set of secrets.

Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of terminalworldsemi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different – and rigidly enforced – level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric lights…

Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon’s world is wrenched apart one more time. For the angel is a winged posthuman from Spearpoint’s Celestial Levels – and with the dying body comes bad news.

If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint’s base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever have imagined. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon’s own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality – and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability…

This fascinating world is sliced up into zones that change the rules at sub-atomic levels, therefore in some zones nothing more sophisticated than steam engines will work, while in others the level of technology is far greater. And then, there is a large dead zone, where nothing lives.  This is a complicated world that isn’t perfectly understood by anyone living there. Quillon, however, becomes uniquely qualified to discover as much about it as anyone else, especially once he is captured by the Swarm, a large community of people who constantly travel by airship.

As ever with Reynolds’ work, the scope of this book is ambitious and as I found myself swept up into Quillon’s initial plight, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride. Steampunk isn’t a particular ‘thing’ of mine, but the Swarm’s journey through the newly exposed zone that was previously impenetrable for five thousand years, is one of the main highlights of the book. And it’s a book that is packed with incident and unfolding information about this original and interesting world. The ending satisfactorily tied up many of the main storylines – so long as this is the start of a new series.

I haven’t seen any indication that Reynolds intends to write more books featuring this planet, but if he doesn’t, then there are far too many dangling threads left waving in the breeze. In Terminal World, he has laid the groundwork for a whole raft of really interesting scenarios, which never get more than a fleeting mention, such as exactly how the zone changes will affect the skullboys, Horsetown or the Celestial Levels. What exactly was Spearpoint for? What will happen to the Swarm? These are questions that Reynolds raises – and never really properly answers. If Terminal World isn’t a one-off offering, then that’s fine; I’ll just wait for the next slice of steampunk adventure to hit the bookshops. However, if this is it – then, Reynolds is guilty of seriously short-changing his readership.
8/10

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