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review by Patrick Hudson
Tanner Mirabel is a mercenary from the war-torn planet of Sky's Edge on a mission of vengeance to make up for the death of the employer he failed. He follows aristocrat Argent Revich to Yellow Stone, a desolate planet with a single, decadent city that clings to the walls of a geothermal cavern - the 'Chasm City' of the title. Chasm City has been devastated by the melding plague that afflicted the captain of the star ship 'Nostalgia for Infinity' (in Reynolds' previous novel Revelation Space), and here, it has wrought havoc with the myriad tiny machines that make life in the ultra hi-tech Chasm City possible, from the microscopic implants and nano-machines in the people's blood to the buildings and infrastructure.
Tanner arrives on Yellow Stone from Sky's Edge, a journey that takes 17 years in reefer sleep as there is no faster than light travel in Reynolds' world. He expects a paradise but finds a hell-hole, and we explore the ruined city through his eyes. Chasm City is a brilliant creation - vivid, exotic and bizarre - and it makes an ideal background for Tanner's noir-tinged search for vengeance. The plague has sharpened the contrast between rich and poor with the haves living in 'the Canopy' - a weird tangle of branches grown from the buildings by the half-machine and half-organic plague - while the have-nots live in 'the Mulch' - the detritus that remains on ground level. Chasm City is as much about the gulfs that separate the people of Reynolds' future as it is about vengeance and redemption. Rich and poor, the mortal and immortal, the planet-bound and the ultras who roam the spaceways on their slow moving ships are all separated by lifestyle and outlook as much as space and time.
Chasm City suffers from a few long stretches of info-dump, and Reynolds sometimes chafes at the light barrier he has imposed on himself, as when he is forced to create a magical instant radio later on to cover a gap in the plot. Tanner's redemption is fairly well signalled in advance but never really rings true, particularly in the light of the mystery that is finally revealed (without giving anything way, it is quickly apparent that Tanner is not all he appears to be). Reynolds' ear for neologism does let him down a few times: 'Dream Fuel' is a rather clichéd name for a future drug and 'slush puppies' (slang for revived reefer sleepers) winks a little too broadly at the reader not to jar.
Like Revelation Space, this is a big novel that spans the galaxy and hundreds of years. Once again there are strong echoes of Iain M. Banks in the decadent post-human future, and the religious imagery is reminiscent of the Hyperion series by Dan Simmons. The super-able, single-minded Tanner brings to mind Kirth Gersen in the Demon Princes series or Gully Foyle from The Stars My Destination.
Of course, this ultra-violent revenge fantasy is largely nonsense, but something about the intergalactic background makes outlandish tales such as this plausible. It's not just SF, though: Tanner's path has been trod hundreds of times in films such as Get Carter, Point Blank and Pale Rider, and is a staple of detective and adventure fiction. It goes further back than that even, to the bloody Jacobean revenge plays and the myths of ancient times. The intergalactic setting provides an aesthetic that appeals to SF fans, but the desire for visceral justice is universal. Reynolds clearly knows which buttons to push, and pushes them all with great gusto.
This is not a new story, but it is told extraordinarily well. Chasm City is an enormously enjoyable novel with spectacle, wonder and imagination to match the excitement, tension and mystery. It is a great development of the potential demonstrated in Revelation Space - already an excellent standard - with vivid characterisation and a well-integrated, multi-stranded plot that unfolds at a regular, satisfying pace right up to the end. Underlying all this is a subtle and sly wit, probing the nature of inequality and the gulf that separates the rich from the poor. Second novels are always interesting: one novel is a point, but with two you can map out a trend. Based on the evidence so far, the trend for Alastair Reynolds is headed steeply upward.
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