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Eversion (SF) - Alastair Reynolds *****

Alastair Reynolds has already proved himself a master of intelligent space opera such as Shadow Captain - with Eversion he enters more exotic territory, giving us an SF novel where things are much more weird and wonderful, and he succeeds equally well here.

We start Eversion on a nineteenth century sailing ship, looking for a strange fissure in the sub-Atlantic ice that is thought to lead to a vast, mysterious structure. The narrative is told from the point of view of Dr Coade, the Demeter's surgeon, along with a number of suitably disparate characters (one with a name surely intended to bring A. E. van Vogt to mind). These range from a greedy financier to an obsessively driven mathematician and cartographer, plus a titled lady who seems intent on ridiculing Coade, particularly over his attempt at writing a scientific romance.

Before long, soon after the crew discover the wreck of the Europa, the ship that was supposed to have brought back news of the walled city (or whatever the structure is), the Demeter faces disaster. From here on in things get decidedly strange: Coade is suddenly on a steam ship rounding Cape Horn, but with the same crew and the same mission.

The mystery we - and Coade - are faced with is working out what is really happening, what the vast structure is and what has happened to the crew of the Europa. This is the kind of long-lasting, puzzling, 'what the heck is going on?' scenario that occurs in some of the best of Gene Wolfe's fantasies such as Castleview and There Are Doors - but it is less often found in science fiction, and Reynolds makes a great job of dealing it.

The only problem with such an 'unwrap the multi-layered puzzle' book is how to end it. Wolfe has a tendency to not really bother, leaving it to the reader to work out. The alternative, which Reynolds uses here, is to have quite a lot of exposition at the end. I'm not sure either works perfectly - but this doesn't stop the mystery being a wonderful experience for the reader, as long as you are prepared to let go and see how things develop, rather than expect to understand everything that's happening before getting near the end.

One thing that, frustratingly, isn't fully explained is the eversion of the title - I can't sensibly describe what this refers to without giving too much away, but it's pretty much presented as a given without the reason for it happening being explored. Again, though, this doesn't get in the way of the excellent storytelling.

Overall, Reynolds paces things well and builds the mystery at the same time as giving clues that will allow some to enjoy a sense of achievement in getting ahead of the narrative - it's a beautifully constructed novel and never fails to keep the reader engaged. I'm not a natural audience for the opening period nautical setting - but it still interested me and as the situation develops and changes, the book really takes off. An excellent addition to Reynolds' impressive collection of reliably entertaining science fiction.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

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