November 29th, 2009

Stone & Sky

The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds

The Prefect
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Series: Revelation Space universe, but not directly connected with the trilogy
Publisher: Ace
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 2009
Pages: 563
Genre: Hard SF/Space Opera/SF Police Procedural

Jacket Description
Tom Dreyfus is a Prefect, a law-enforcement officer with the Panoply. His beat is the Glitter Band, that vast swirl of space habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone, the teeming hub of a human interstellar empire spanning many worlds.

His current case: investigating a murderous attack against one of the habitats that left over nine hundred people dead. But his investigation uncovers something far more serious than mass slaughter -- a covert plot by an enigmatic entity who seeks nothing less than total control of the Glitter Band.

My Review
The Prefect started out rough for me. The characterization was shoddy through the opening act -- the only female viewpoint character, Thalia Ng, was also the only character who seemed to feel any emotion at all, and as she was mainly nervous and afraid her emotions undercut my respect for her as a prefect -- especially as the other prefects whose viewpoints Reynolds showed all appeared calm, cool, collected, and totally in control. There were also moments where Reynolds forced the characters to have totally artificial-feeling conversations to provide important information to the reader -- not quite conversations of the "Well, as you know, Bill, the Glitter Band is a string of 10,000 habitats circling the planet Yellowstone" variety, but close.

The imaginative scope of The Prefect fell shy for me in the beginning as well. All the best bits of imaginative work had been covered in previous novels set in this universe -- the Ultras and their ships are very minor characters, the Glitter Band and Chasm City are just there
as backdrop, and no real prose is spent going over any of their wonders. The only new bits of imagination are expended on the four habitats that Thalia visits by herself, and they seemed surprisingly juvenile creations -- one consists of people who have given up most of their physical bodies in favor of a total life of the mind, so when they need to walk around they are merely heads in boxes; another is made up of people who have modelled their bodies after various animals and engage in violent jousting tournaments full of claws and teeth, fur and feathers. That imagery has been done before, and Reynolds himself seemed bored with it, as he switched away from Thalia's perspective after he set each of those habitats up and didn't return to her until she was done dealing with them.

But as soon as Thalia arrived at House Aubusson, the novel started picking up speed. That habitat did show some of Reynolds' usual imagination, and its role in the complicated Demarchist voting system was fascinating to me. And shortly after that point, the final showdown began, and the book started racing towards its finish line. From that point I was glued to the page, feeling the tension rising and worrying my own brain at the problem of coming up with a solution to the threat bearing down on Panoply and the Glitter Band.

Unfortunately, that point was only 180 pages into a 563 page novel. There is no way for any author to maintain a feverish intensity for the entire last two-thirds. The only way to pace a novel of that length is to have a mini-climax somewhere in the middle, a ramping down of the tension, and then a second, higher escalation for the true climax at the end. Reynolds had no mini-climax, no ramping down and then re-escalation, so though I raced through the middle section, by the time the story was starting to draw to a close I (and the narrative) was losing steam. The ending itself was a bit too much of a deus ex machina resolution for my taste (quite literally, actually), and the emotional story arc for Dreyfus simply never connected enough for me for that to be justification for reading the almost 600 pages.

So ultimately, I would recommend this novel to anyone who's read the other Revelation Space novels because it does fill in some of the back story on the Glitter Band, but anyone who has never tried Reynolds before would be much better off starting with the original trilogy (Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap), which has much more impressive hard SF imaginings (I miss the Nostalgia for Infinity!) or with the other semi-standalone novel, Chasm City, which has a much better mystery.
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