I read the first three Revelation Space books by Alastair Reynolds over a decade ago, before I began this blog: Revelation Space (published in 2000), Chasm City (2001) and Redemption Ark (2002). I stopped reading the series after that, possibly because I needed a break from the not insignificant effort involved in grappling with his complex plots, dense writing and very lengthy stories. I therefore missed the next one in the series – Absolution Gap (2003) – although I did read a stand-alone novel, Pushing Ice (2005), a couple of years ago and reviewed it in this blog.
On looking through my reading pile (which goes back decades) I noticed Absolution Gap sitting there so decided to give it a spin. I remember virtually nothing of the earlier books – reading the Wiki plot summaries rang only the faintest of bells – and I wasn't about to devote weeks to reading them all again, so I started "cold" and can only assess it as a stand-alone novel.
Typically of Reynolds, the structure is complex with several threads running in parallel, set in different places and at different times (to be precise; 2615, 2675 and 2727, with the prologue and epilogue set four centuries later). Fortunately the location and date of each chapter are signalled at the start, so it's not too confusing as long as you pay attention. However, while two of the threads are new, one (2675) is a continuation of events and characters in Redemption Ark and no concessions are made to those unfamiliar with the earlier novels, with the first summary of previous events occurring around page 200. Since your reviewer recalled nothing of these, he was left somewhat groping in the dark (not an unusual occurence…).
Anyway, the 2615 thread is fairly brief, dealing with the discovery of Haldora, a gas giant with the disconcerting habit of occasionally vanishing for a fraction of a second. The 2727 thread is set in the same location on the airless but settled world of Hela, Haldora's moon, where a precocious teenage girl is searching for her long-lost brother in a strange environment of vast baroque self-propelled cathedrals which move along a fixed track around the moon to keep Haldora overhead, so that the inhabitants can observe the vanishings which are the key element of their religion. In between, the 2675 thread is set on the watery world of Ararat, a refuge from a war between humanity – especially the Conjoiners, who have neural implants to enhance their capabilities – and the Inhibitors, an ancient alien force designed to destroy advanced civilisations. But they are not left alone for long, and the two threads eventually combine.
Absolution Gap is packed full of concepts and races, some of which are left dangling. For example the Pattern Jugglers of Ararat, a oceanic "world mind" with the capacity to absorb the minds (and sometimes bodies) of humans who swim in it; and the Shadows, the Nestbuilders and the Greenfly, mysterious alien races of which the last two are only described in the epilogue. In fact, the epilogue reads a little like an outline of a sequel which the author had lost interest in writing. At 660 pages of small font text, this is not a quick read. Nonetheless I was absorbed from the start and spent most of one transatlantic flight reading it.
Two points are worth mentioning about Reynolds' writing: first, it is very good indeed, comparable with Iain M Banks (although without the dry humour); second, his Revelation Space universe, while optimistic as far as the continued survival of humanity is concerned, is no utopia, and don't expect "happily ever after" endings. Nonetheless, readers new to the Revelation Space series are in for a treat in terms of top-quality hard SF provided that you are prepared to set aside a lot of time to read them carefully, preferably at fairly short intervals so that you can remember previous events. There is one other novel set in the Revelation Space universe, The Prefect (2007), which is a prequel to the other four, plus some short stories.