House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds – Book Review

house-of-suns-alastair-reynolds-pap18-lgeIN SHORT: It’s six million years in the future, and a thousand cloned galactic travelers are about to have a reunion. They like to throw a big party every few hundred thousand years. Only, sinister forces crash their party and nearly wipe them out.

WHAT IT IS: The novel is all about big ideas and big timescales. Ships do not travel faster than light in this book, and the book spans a good chunk of the galaxy in terms of distance. It’s EPIC in scope. The novel is also populated with some really cool creations, like the stardams (collections of ancient ringworlds that hold in supernovas), the Spirit of the Air (a very weird and cool swarm intellect), and Machine People (creepy robots!), just to name a few.

WHAT IT IS NOT: Despite the huge concepts of the novel, the characters that inhabit it are rather mundane. The two protagonist clones, Purslane and Campion, are kind of bland. They’re in love, but I don’t know why. They’ve thrown caution to the wind by breaking rules, but I don’t get why the rules are there. This blandness is made worse by an odd choice is narrative perspective.

Also, this book, like its travelers, can take its time going places.

WHAT I THOUGHT: I love Alastair Reynolds’ world-building. I just love it.

The concepts Alastair Reynolds plays with are mind-bending in their awesome scope. The Gentian clones, protagonists of the novel, talk about millenia like we talk about days. They discuss the rise and fall of whole civilizations like we discuss rising and falling movie stars. It’s ambitious, and Alastair Reynolds pulls it off.

However, there are a few problems. Normally, I’m fine with the first person perspective, but not when a book uses multiple narratives in first person. The book bounces between Purslane and Campion, while sticking to first person. I really struggled, especially early on, trying to remember which perspective I was reading from.

The novel also drags in the middle. There’s a 200-page section where almost nothing happens. The flashbacks to the palatial didn’t help either. Though initially cool, the palatial scenes really outstayed their welcome. It’s basically someone talking about a fantasy RPG they played six million years ago. It just didn’t feel relevant.

As for my other problems …

START – MINOR PLOT SPOILERS 

  • Purslane and Campion don’t really pull their weight as protagonists. Despite a daring rescue near the beginning of the novel, they mostly just sit around and let plot happen to them. Even when they do try to change events, their actions rarely have an impact. They spend a lot of time in stasis letting characters like Hesperus do the heavy lifting. It’s hard to cheer for heroes that are basically along for the ride.
  • Despite all the technology at their disposal, Gentians make really bad interrogators. Sectioning has got to be the most pointlessly complicated interrogation method I have ever read about. Granted, it’s cool, in a creepy sort of way, but I think the method used on James Bond in Casino Royale would have saved the Gentians a lot of time (i.e. just keep hitting the guy in the balls).

END – MINOR PLOT SPOILERS 

And then there’s this …

START – MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS

  • Nothing that happens in this book matters. The attack executed by the House of Suns has no point, because their secret is already out. The Machine People plot to open the stardam also has no effect, because there’s no one on the other side. This made the ending feel anticlimactic, even with a really good chase scene building up to it.

END – MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS

Despite my nitpicks, I enjoyed the book. It got a little sleepy in the middle, but the start and the end are both solid page turners. And let’s face it, I may complain about certain elements of Alastair Reynold’s writing, but I keep buying his books. That says a lot right there.

VERDICT: Recommended.

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2 replies

  1. I really enjoyed this one. I agree about the blandness of the characters, but overall this is one of his best works, because he accomplishes storytelling on a level no other author has ever attempted (to my knowledge). Yeah it has some weaknesses, but I found myself cheering Campion on nevertheless. I also found this to move faster than some points of the redemption ark trilogy, so I think that pacing is just sort of something AR wrestles with. I imagine that keeping the story arc tight while still accomplishing the scope he approaches makes it difficult to pull off without pockets of sluggish chapters. Oh yeah, and I constantly forgot whose perspective I was following in House of Suns until about the midpoint when I finally knew the characters enough to figure it out haha!

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