Review: House of Suns

Lurk on any sci-fi book forum and you're bound to come across Alastair Reynolds sooner rather than later. It's not easy to find a good starting point with Reynolds, since his magnum opus, the Revelation Space series, is long and reportedly hit-and-miss in places. Two other frequently recommended standalone novels of his are Pushing Ice and House of Sunsβ€”the latter is unanimously praised everywhere I've seen it mentioned, and I dove into it eagerly after finishing Use Of Weapons.

House of Suns is set in a different universe than the Revelation Space series, and centres on a group (family?) of shatterlings (clones) called Gentian Line. Along with cool depictions of transhumanism, Reynolds raises some interesting questions about consciousness and identity. Ultimately, though, the book fell well short of my expectations.

One major selling point is the feeling of deep time: the lifetime of a shatterling stretches into millions of years, and a typical journey through space can take thousands of years. In this respect Reynolds somewhat succeeds, though these passages of time eventually lose their impact and become mere statements of fact.

At the risk of sounding too harsh, "statements of fact" sums up everything I dislike about this book. The wooden dialogue serves as a vehicle for exposition and little else. The characters are just as bland as their dialogue, with motivations and loyalties that are either cliched or bewildering. Underneath the pages and pages of awkward dialogue is a plot that appears intricate at first but left me feeling underwhelmed at the end. The tension that finally developed a good third into the book dissipated quickly, and the more I read the more disappointed I was about the neatly resolved plot points.

I have mixed feelings about Reynolds' writing style. On the one hand, I appreciated his attention to detail, especially his careful use of medical and anatomical terms. It just felt oddly sterile and didn't strike the intended emotional notes in me. With too much telling and not enough showing, he leaves little for the reader to speculate and infer.

It wasn't all bad. Like I said, I liked a lot of the ideas woven into the background. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Golden Hour, and of Abigail's uncannily shifting house. The flip-side of his tendency to over-describe is that all the surreal and haunting scenes were conjured effortlessly in my mind. Shame we didn't get to read more about the mysterious Curators of the Vigilance. Reynolds also does a decent job of simplifying cool science concepts, such as faster-than-light travel and the violation of causality.

If House of Suns is representative of Reynolds' novels as a seasoned writer, I doubt I'd appreciate his other long-form works. I'm glad I read it, but I really didn't enjoy the experience of reading it. Disappointing, as I was very intrigued by his darker brand of sci-fi in the form of the Revelation Space series. Perhaps I'll have better luck with his short stories.

Day 27 of #100DaysToOffload

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