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Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds *****

Reading an author for the first time is always a step in the dark, but just occasionally it becomes immediately clear that here's someone you'll have to keep reading. The last SF authors I can remember feeling this about were Adam Roberts and the late Iain M. Banks - but I am going to have to include Alastair Reynolds in this class.

One of the puffs on the back of the book describes Reynolds as a 'mastersinger of the space opera'. To be honest, I think this was a critic who had thought up a clever turn of phrase and was going to lever it in come what may - because I certainly wouldn't class this as a space opera. Okay, it's set on multiple locations in space and there are spaceships - but adventures in space aren't central to the way the book works. Instead, this is very much a detective story in futuristic science fiction setting.

Although the main character is flagged up on the cover as being Prefect Dreyfus, this is very much an ensemble piece, with half a dozen key characters taking the lead. In this future society where everything is decided by instant polling, keeping the polling mechanism sacrosanct is the job of a cross-habitat force of prefects, who are the main, but not only law-and-order component to the story. They face two intertwined problems - citizens dying unexpectedly from an overheating implant and a rabble-rouser attempting to break up the loose collaboration of habitats. Both need to be dealt with, stretching resources. But there are far more layers to the story, which Reynolds handles beautifully. It's always a page-turner with a huge amount of impetus - but at the same time these different layers are woven together with impressive skill.

If I have one criticism it's that we don't get much of a feel of personality for quite a few of the characters. They do what they do, and there might be one characteristic that comes through, but they tend not to be fully rounded. But there's rarely time to worry too much about this. The storyline also regularly has flashbacks to the mysterious childhood of two of the characters - I usually find repeated flashbacks a real drag on the flow of the narrative and dislike them intensely, but in this case they are so essential that the technique works unusually well.

Just as good as Reynolds' ability to keep the plot surging along is the innovation in his technology and world creation. Again, I haven't seen anything as comprehensively effective as Banks in this, from one of Dreyfus's colleagues who is a hyper-pig to the whiphound defensive devices used by the prefects and a whole collection of small details. What makes Banks' Culture books so special is that the whole collective of technology seems entirely natural, advanced though it is - and there's the same feeling here.

Elysium Fire is the second in a series, which is reasonably obvious from a sub-plot that ends with some unfinished business, but having come to it without reading the first title I didn't feel that I had missed out on anything. The main story here is entirely self-contained. Excellent.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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