Book Review: Inhibitor Phase, by Alastair Reynolds

It’s the return of a familiar face this week, as I get to grips with one of Alastair Reynolds’ newest novels. Intended to be suitable as both a standalone novel and as a sequel, Inhibitor Phase is the latest entry in his revered Revelation Space sequence. But how does it compare to the rest? Read on to find out!

From the blurb:

Miguel de Ruyter is a man with a past.

Fleeing the ‘wolves’ – the xenocidal alien machines known as Inhibitors – he has protected his family and community from attack for forty years, sheltering in the caves of an airless, battered world. The slightest hint of human activity could draw the wolves to their home, to destroy everything … utterly. Which is how Miguel finds himself on a one-way mission with his own destructive mandate: to eliminate a passing ship, before it can bring unwanted attention down on them.

Only something goes wrong.

There’s a lone survivor.

And she knows far more about Miguel than she’s letting on . . .

Ranging from the depths of space to the deeps of Pattern Juggler waters, from nervous, isolated communities to the ruins of empire, this is a stealthy space opera from an author at the top of his game.

Coming some eighteen years after Absolution Gap, it’s a surprise that Reynolds has chosen to continue telling this particular thread of the story. Not an unwelcome surprise mind you, but with a new Prefect Dreyfus novel on the way – the third in his series of Revelation Space police procedural prequels* – Reynolds is clearly far from finished with the universe he’s created. Frankly, that’s good news, because Inhibitor Phase – and I say this as objectively as possible – is excellent.

Despite being on the shorter side for Reynolds, clocking in at around 450 pages, Inhibitor Phase lacks none of the big ideas or epic scale of the previous books. There’s much less emphasis on time as a plot device, but this never feels like something missing; Reynolds focusing on Miguel alone rather than the multiple character narratives he’s employed previously justifies the decision to excise it. Miguel himself is also a really likeable character, with a great arc and some nice development. His love for his family, along with his believable responses and reactions to situations, make him very easy to get behind. His instinctive need to protect the people he loves and his self-sacrificing nature help to make this undoubtedly the most emotionally resonant novel of the series.

Contrasting sharply with Miguel is the lone survivor of the wrecked ship, who goes by the name Glass. She has very specific plans for Miguel, though to say more would be giving too much away. She’s another great character though, who displays increasing levels of arrogance as things progress, yet again has a satisfying character arc. Miguel meeting her initiates what transpires to be a whistle-stop tour of the Revelation Space universe, taking in some familiar locations and some new ones and letting us see how they’ve changed since we last saw them. Picking over the bones of the marvellous locations Reynolds has previously populated with bustling life could almost be seen as cruel, if they weren’t still so elegantly depicted even in death. On top of this, there are callbacks aplenty; so many touches feel like Reynolds winking and saying “Yep, I had a plan for that all along.”

With that in mind, it’s time for my one, tiny criticism – it’s difficult to see how this works as a standalone. Whilst it can technically be read independently of the other novels, I’m not really sure firstly why you would and secondly if you even should. If you’re a newcomer to Alastair Reynolds’ work, he has plenty of standalones to try if you want to get a sense of his writing (such as the excellent House of Suns, which I reviewed here), none of which will leave you with the nagging sense that there are references that might be going over your head. Chasm City functions perfectly well as both a standalone and an introduction to the universe too, being a prequel, but really Revelation Space itself is the best starting point. Had I never read any Reynolds prior to this book, I would still have enjoyed it, but I suspect I would have felt that there were things that hadn’t been fully explained to me.

Judging Inhibitor Phase purely as a direct sequel, it’s fantastic. The flourishes of cosmic horror, the actual horror, the characters, the fan service and the emotional depth all add up to an incredibly strong entry in the Revelation Space sequence. Is it the best one of the series? That would be a bold claim indeed, but the fact that I’m debating the question at all should tell you all you need to know about how good this entry is.

Inhibitor Phase is out now, and published by Gollancz.

*Try saying that three times quickly.

P.S. I am aware that my review is very similar in content to Moid’s (of Media Death Cult fame), but this is entirely coincidental. I was excited to finally watch Moid’s review after writing this one, having avoided other reviews either to avoid spoilers or to minimise the risk of potentially biassing my own, then was dumbstruck by how similarly we’d expressed our feelings and opinions about this book. I even had to reword some sections because we’d used exactly the same phrases! Doubtless there have been other reviews I’ve written which have expressed similar sentiments to other reviewers before, but this is the first instance where I’ve particularly noticed it, so thought it was worth assuring people that I arrived at these incredibly similar opinions independently!

Currently reading: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch
Currently listening: Beyond the Reach of Flame, Micawber

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