Top positive review
Couldn't put it down
Reviewed in the United States on January 22, 2019
I'm giving this book five stars because it gave me exactly what I wanted: several hours of outstanding entertainment. I read it in a single session--it was hard to put down, so I didn't. Books like that are hard to come by these days in the F&SF world, so I appreciate this rarity all the more.
SHADOW CAPTAIN is a sequel to a previous book, REVENGER. You should probably read that first. In Shadow Captain, we continue to follow the two sisters who killed the Dread Pirate Roberts...er I mean Bosa Sennen as they careen about the worlds trying to...well...be good pirates? Decent privateers? Polite robbers? Of course, it's not easy being a good pirate; this universe seems to demand the existence of a Dread Pirate much like the world of PRINCESS BRIDE, and the two sisters are pretty much stuck in the universal bad guy role. Whether they want it or not.
The plot contains a lot of guessing of just how much of Bosa Sennen is left in the sister that the dread pirate was conditioning to take her place (Adrana), and just how much the other sister's mind (Fura) has been taken over by the glowy fungus that is growing throughout her nervous system (and makes parts of her glow in the dark). To tell the truth, they both come across as conniving and demented, and I'm not sure that I could really tell the two apart if you gave me a pop quiz. Adrana tells the story from the first person perspective, but I expect that she is as unreliable a narrator as you can find. In fact, if there were no sisters and they were one person, I wouldn't be utterly surprised. Such a revelation would finally resolve the subject of their constant sisterly spats about who is Really In Charge. (No this is not a spoiler. I'm just engaged in wild speculation.)
The universe in which these two books are set is at first a bit obscure, but you can pick up hints here and there. Apparently, there was a very long meeting, and everyone (or, I guess, everyone who counted) voted to blow up the eight (eight--count'em EIGHT) planets of the Solar System, and make a lot of itsy bitsy tiny worldlets out of them. On high grade, posh planetoids, gravity is provided by a resident black hole ("swallower" in the books' terminology). The low-class wordlets--which may be little more than large space stations--have no gravity, except maybe that provided by spinning the whole thing. All these little worlds are arranged in shells around the "old sun". I gather it's a long time in the future.
I'm not entirely sure that Einsteinian or even Newtonian physics apply in the world of Shadow Captain. There is a reference to gravitational lensing around a black hole. However, the method by which the planets are kept in their orderly shells around the sun is mysterious--in fact, the astrophysics seems more Aristotelian than anything else--except that there are no crystal spheres separating the various shells.
The technology could be described as "steam punk", but I haven't noticed much actual steam power being used. Honestly, the tech seems pretty random. Interplanetary flight is accomplished by sailing ships. I'm not sure if these are photon sails, or something else, but sailing is certainly a suitable metaphor for traveling the "seas" of space, so I found myself taking to it readily. I was bothered that for some reason, people use crossbows as weapons, though they ought to be perfectly capable of building guns. In fact, there are guns here and there. But these seem to be artifacts gotten from caches of ancient treasures known as "baubles"; these "baubles" are one of the more interesting features of Reynolds' universe. I hope we get to visit more of them in future books. (A "volitional pistol" made an all too brief appearance. I would like to have made a closer acquaintance with its powers. Apparently, it makes you really, really hate someone just before you shoot him. Does it make killing easier on the psyche? Dunno, this isn't well explained.)
It seems to me that Reynolds wants to tell a story that is not full of the clichés of interstellar space opera--and that's refreshing. If you don't go with the clichés, then you have to be inventive, and I think Reynolds does a good job of inventing in these two books. There's also lots of mysteries to unravel. Like, where do the aliens come from? Do they have faster than light space travel? What's their role? What causes the recurrent rise and collapse of civilizations ("occupations") in the Solar System? There's hints of cosmic skulduggery, and surely the aliens are implicated, somehow.
Though it's by no means imitative, the tone of Reynold's universe reminds me a bit of Karl Schroeder's VIRGA novels. Like Reynolds, Schroeder gives us a limited universe, with hints of an "outside" that may just come crashing in some day. But the "universe" is confined enough so that it can have its own rules, and alien enough to give you that frisson of novelty that's missing from most F&SF these days.
Another reviewer commented on the peculiarities of the dialogue, which has some resemblance to English "Thieves' Cant". According to the English-Cant dictionary (URL deleted because Amazon seems to hate them) a "cove" is a man; but in Reynoldese, it actually means "a person"; it's non-sex specific. This is quite a convenience in today's world, which is oh so sensitive on anything having to do with sex. Excuse me. I mean to say "gender", of course.
I'm very much looking forward to the next book in the REVENGER series.