Chasm City (Alastair Reynolds)
Chasm City is the second novel by author Alastair Reynolds to be set in his Revelation Space universe. It does not directly continue the story from the first novel, Revelation Space, though some of the events and characters from that book are referenced. Like its predecessor, Chasm City suffers from a lack of relatable and intriguing characters, but fortunately Chasm City continues the excellent world building that makes the universe so endearing. The plot is also a significantly more focused effort that is told from the perspective of only one character, with plenty of flashbacks to fill in gaps and set up a great twist ending.
Tanner Mirabel is our protagonist for much of the book. Born to a world of constant strife on Sky's Edge, Tanner was hired on as a security chief for a wealthy arms dealer named Cahuella. His time with Caheulla is exceedingly violent, culminating in a brutal raid by Reivich, the story's primary antagonist, that kills Caheulla's wife Gitta, and prompts Tanner to vow his revenge and chase Reivich across the universe. His quest to hunt down Reivich takes him to the world of Yellowstone and its infamous Chasm City, victim to a melding plague that caused the heavily automated buildings to shape shift and deform. Unfortunately, he loses his memory in transit, and is afflicted by what he believes to be the indoctrination virus of a Sky Haussmann (the founder of his homeworld, Sky's Edge) cult, which forces key events from Sky's life into his mind. As he works his way through a web of mysteries, acquiring new companions and surviving the perils of Chasm City, he begins to learn more about his past through flashbacks, while experiencing visions from Sky's life with increasing frequency. The three plotlines tie together nicely in the final few pages and the revelations are fairly unexpected and thoroughly enjoyable, presenting a much more focused and concise story than the meandering Revelation Space.
We spend quite a bit of time developing and exploring the world of Chasm City. It is a multifaceted, tiered society with plenty of memorable sub groups, traditions, and personas. The whole idea of a city suffering from a plague, in addition to its inhabitants, is an intriguing one that the book explores in great depth. World building is one of the most positive aspects of the novel, but it doesn't just apply to the titular city. The war torn world of Sky's Edge and the cramped confines of the Santiago starship are brought to life in exquisite fashion as well.
Characterization is a major problem for this book. Sky Haussman is a suitably disturbed, intriguing individual but beyond him we don't have much to connect with here. Tanner's motive for revenge seems very bizarre, and though his character is a decent protagonist, he just doesn't come across as human or relatable, even with the revelations at the end of the book. His cadre of companions, many of whom wanted to kill him at one point, are flat out boring, and their reasons for joining him are poorly thought out. Additionally, the fact that so many characters have a chance to kill Tanner but do not dramatically hurts the story's credibility. These side characters seemingly mean little to our protagonist, and vice versa, resulting in one of the most hollow supporting casts I've ever seen.
The author favors a somewhat simplistic but very precise writing style. The imagery mostly succeeds through how imaginative the setting is, and not the author's skill with words, though there are some good phrases and such throughout the book. The dialogue between characters is rarely more than superficial/expository in nature, but there are quite a few humorous one liners that give the book a lighter feel when it needs it most. Action sequences aren't a particular highlight as there are very few of them, but the author does do a good job of describing the more brutal moments scattered throughout the book, which really helps to bring the madness of Sky Haussman and Chasm City to life. The more fantastical concepts are poorly detailed in places, but most of the book is clear and concise, though hardly extraordinarily written.
Chasm City represents a major step forward for author Alastair Reynolds. The excellent world building from Revelation Space is successfully expanded upon and the plotting is much better than in that book. Characters are still a major flaw, as the best thing to be said about any given character is that they are dull but sensible. Many of them don't even make sense, particularly when it comes to motivations. Outside of bad characterization, the book is a great adventure in a compelling world, brought to life by writing that is significantly improved from the previous book but still not exemplary. With an all new cast and an unrelated plot, Chasm City works as a standalone novel and people turned off by the numerous flaws of the original novel may want to give it a try as it is a total improvement.