Book review: The Iron Tactician, by Alastair Reynolds

23 06 2017

Alastair Reynolds is a British SF author and former ESA space scientist most strongly associated with the ‘Revelation Space’ novel sequence, though he has also written many other well-regarded hard SF and space opera novels. I’ve reviewed several of his books; you can find those reviews on my review list here.


The Iron Tactician is the most recent novella in Reynolds’ slowly-unfolding ‘Merlin’ sequence: earlier stories in this sequence are ‘Merlin’s Gun’, ‘Hideaway’, and ‘Minla’s Flowers’, though the internal chronology of the story sequence differs from the order in which they were written. In the Merlin universe, FTL travel is not feasible, but travel at velocities marginally slower than lightspeed is accessible via the Waynet, a magical-physics network of interstellar routes established by some long-vanished alien race and still not properly understood by humanity. The backdrop to the stories is a slow-unfolding war between humanity and the Huskers; solo space-traveller Merlin’s home planet is one of those laid waste in this war.

In Tactician, Merlin discovers a derelict swallowship, scuttled in a Husker attack several centuries past. The ship is dead, but there’s one survivor—Teal—who has occupied the ship’s sole still-functioning coldsleep berth in the centuries since the attack. Merlin, who’s searching for a piece of alien tech—a ‘syrinx’, a device facilitating access to the Waynet—to replace his own ship’s damaged component, bargains with Teal to find the syrinx that the derelict swallowhip had been carrying. The device had been traded, centuries previously, to a technologically-backward human civilisation, Havergal, occupying one half of a binary star system and engaged in a long-running fusion-weapons war with Gaffurius, the occupants of the system’s other half. So Merlin and Teal travel to the Havergal / Gaffurius system to seek to reclaim the syrinx by fair means or foul.

It’s difficult to write widescreen space opera, with all the interstellar intrigue, exaggerated highborn characters and stunning star-spanning vistas that the genre requires, in a compact form; even more difficult, I suspect, when one strives also to adhere to (most of) the strictures of hard SF with its intrinsic respect for the laws of physics. But Reynolds has form in this area, as the previous ‘Merlin’ stories (among others) can attest, and he acquits himself pretty well here. I’d still class ‘Minla’s Flowers’ as the high watermark of this sequence: in Tactician, there’s a sense of a little too much plot having been shoehorned in, a little too much convenient coincidence among the set of central characters, a little too much tendency to bombast in the story’s climactic sequence. But it’s possible, also, while cavilling at these perceived imperfections, to admire the clockwork elegance of the novella’s interconnecting components, and while the story hardly shows off protagonist Merlin to his best advantage, the characterisation of Teal, in particular, is a worthwhile creation displaying intriguing depth. I hope we get to see further instalments in this sequence.




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