Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds)
Revelation Space is set in humanity's distant future. The protagonists come from three different backgrounds, and unite under unique and trying circumstances to fight an alien threat.
The opening of the book is extremely long winded, and hard to get into. Ceaseless flashbacks color the first two hundred pages or so, sometimes detailing an important event in the plot or character's life, but often relaying useless information that we didn't really need. Part of this can be attributed to the long spans of time that the book jumps-sometimes months or years at a time. But the large majority of it is due to the obsession with detail that can be seen throughout the book. In this case, there simply isn't a reason to know what a character was doing just before the present.
Once the plot threads converge, things get more interesting. The larger mystery at hand is further fleshed out, and the characters begin interacting in a more conflict oriented and interesting manner. Though the characters themselves aren't great, this section works because of the fantastic world building and imagery, not to mention a few well timed plot twists.
The final third of the book kicks it into full gear, and delivers a rewarding conclusion to the mysteries presented earlier. The dynamics of the group aren't very captivating, but the final revelations and resolutions are nothing short of incredible in both scale and story. I also appreciated the ending, which perfectly matched with the mood of the story. Definitely not a "Hollywood" style ending.
The conflict mostly takes place amongst the crewmembers, but a mechanical world, and an ancient alien contained in the ship make for interesting conventional antagonists. Though they are relatively late comers to the story, both enhance the wonderful sense of imagination apparent throughout the book, and serve as formidable foes for the crew.
The bland characterization and interchangeable characters prevent this novel from being a classic. The three point of view characters are given just enough of a background to fit into their various roles, and little more. They also barely evolve over the course of the story, and more often than not feel as mouthpieces for the story. They aren't actively unlikeable, just passively uninteresting. The interaction between the central character, Dan Sylveste, and his wife are indicative of the lukewarm relationships here. They don't seem to show each other their love for each other very often, and in fact his wife eventually sides against him in a crucial plot point late in the book.
The secondary characters are even worse. The crew onboard Nostalgia For Infinity is completely devoid of personality, and often the only thing that can be discerned about them is who they are trying to kill on board the ship. The only good character in this bunch is a comatose captain that is only effective because of the inherent mysteries surrounding his character that remain unexplored for the duration of the book.
In terms of world building, Revelation Space offers a nearly unparalleled experience. The author crafts a plausible future that is vividly imagined. Nearly everything projected is a work of genius, and easily appreciated. From the various factions at work in the universe, to the enormity of the Nostalgia For Infinity, to the "living" world of Cerberus, there are some fantastic ideas at play here. This does require just a bit of techno babble, but it is handled fairly well in that context and overall these amazing concepts flesh out the story and bring the world to life.
Other aspects suffer due to the same commitment to detail that makes the world so great. The aforementioned flashback scenes are an example of this, as is exacting descriptions of just about everything. This is necessary to some degree, but it feels like the author took it too far, too often, when describing the scenery and concepts at work.
The action scenes are somewhat subdued as well. The first few are told in the past tense, and later ones generally lack energy and a sense of tension. Dialogue wasn't very good, either. It wasn't cliche or corny, but too much of it was expository in nature, and this definitely prevented the characters from developing meaningful relationships and endearing themselves to the reader.
Overall, the world building is a highlight of the prose, but nearly every other area is lackluster, though not quite bad.
An average plot with fantastic concepts and an engrossing universe are marred by flimsy characters and perpetual overwriting on the part of the author. Future books in this series have potential, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a new sci fi universe to explore.