The Ness sisters banded together and won an overwhelming victory against nearly impossible odds. That might have been their happy ending, except that life goes on, and the past refuses to let go. Alastair Reynolds’ Shadow Captain follows on from 2017’s pirate-flavored space opera Revenger. It’s the story of a crew of space privateers caught between family, loyalty, and revenge.
In the first book, Adrana and Fura Ness beat Bosa Sennen, the most ruthless and notorious pirate in the galaxy. The sisters, along with a handful of companions, claimed her ship in the process—no insignificant prize. The victory wasn’t without consequence, though: Fura has become obsessed with the pirate queen’s secrets, while Adrana (our point-of-view character) retains traces of the conditioning she received as an unwilling part of Bosa’s crew.
In a more concrete way, they’re also flying around in a well-known and very much hated ship, with no one particularly convinced that the former captain is dead. (The ones who do believe it don’t particularly care; revenge against the ship itself will suffice). They’ve got a great ship and plenty of money, but nowhere to go and no way to resupply. There are the “baubles” out there for the claiming, space-borne bits of ancient technology, but finding one requires fuel and resources, and even that is a gamble: one might contain riches, while another might hold only danger.
While being pursued, the crew makes a plan to disguise themselves and their vessel and head for Wheel Strizzardy, an outpost far from any center of power, where they might get away with a deception. Naturally, trouble follows them—an unfortunate encounter with a pursuing ship leaves them open to even greater suspicion, and their arrival at Wheel Strizzardy forces them into an unwanted alliance with a local crime lord and his eclectic gang. The problems come as much from within as without, with the Ness sisters’ trust in one another fraying with each new complication.
Like Revenger, Shadow Captain takes place many millions of years into the future, with civilization having risen and fallen many times in the interval. Though there are steampunk ideas at work, Reynolds doesn’t limit himself to any particular set of tropes: each rise in civilization has been preceded by a long dark age, so society runs on salvaged technology no one completely understands.
Called “Occupations,” each earlier rise left behind both trauma and unique relics. Ships fly on enormous solar sails and communicate by linking themselves into alien skulls that form mental links with other bone readers. Space battles, though infrequent, resemble naval combat. And, of course, piracy is rampant. With worldbuilding that wears its influences on its sleeve and occasionally wild shifts in tone (one run-in with some comically ominous characters on Wheel Strizzardy feels straight out of Dickens), it’s hard not to think these disparate elements have no business working together. But Reynolds is a pro, and what might otherwise be a hodge-podge becomes exhilarating in its momentum and variety. His willingness to have some fun in a story that’s not, on the surface, particularly light, is what really powers the Revenger and her crew.
With this series, Reynolds is aiming at several different targets. The fractured family dynamic between the loyal, tough, damaged sisters is at the story’s heart, and they exist within a compelling, period-inspired universe populated by colorful characters and mysterious technology. Over the course of the sequel, a third level comes into view, one that plays to the hard science fiction strengths of the author. The Ness sisters and their crew become increasingly aware that there are bigger mysteries in their vast solar system, and that the various Occupations of humanity might not be nearly as random as previously thought.
Shadow Captain does what a great sequel should do: it builds upon, rather than replicates, the earlier work while escalating the drama and upping the stakes. Though it is more straightforward than the more epic Revelation Space series, Reynolds’ fans will certainly not be disappointed, and the worlds’-shattering conclusion has us very much looking forward to our next voyage with the Ness sisters.
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