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Alistair Reynold's Revelation Space series has garnered much critical acclaim for its presentation of a bleak, semi-steam punk future populated by the ever-squabbling factions of humanity. Despite (or perhaps because of) its general lack of explicit aliens, the Revelation Space universe is a fascinating and diverse place, rife with conflict and strife. Particularly interesting is the Epsilon Eradani system, the series' most regularly frequented location. Twisted by a vicious technological plague, the system is filled with a Rust Belt of derelict hulks orbiting a city filled with nightmares.
The Prefect provides a glimpse of what things around Epsilon Eradani used to be like.
It's a stark contrast. Here, the Rust Belt is instead the Glitter Band, and those hulks-to-be are very much teaming with life. Knowing what it's all going to become lends a certain poignancy to the story. As we learn more and more of the Orbital Habitats, we gain more and more sympathy for the inevitable diaster soon to befall these people.
Although not every Habitat is easily pitied. Reynolds excels at developing cultures, and he clearly enjoys fleshing out the Habitats and their individual societies. Some of them are truly unsettling; the Habitats undertaking voluntary oppression sound like a particularly sadomasochistic nightmare. In the Glitter Band, it seems, people maintain the exclusive right to vote themselves right down to hell.
And here the novel's plot kicks in. The Prefect is about, unsurprisingly, a Prefect- a member of the Glitter Band's Panoply Police Force. Due to the diversity of law in evidence, the Panoply has only one responsibility- preserve the voting rights of each individual Habitat, and make sure their internal elections are running smoothly. It's implied that the Panoply can be quite brutal in their insistence on democracy. Prefect Dreyfus finds himself pulled into a web of intrigue after the horrific destruction of an entire Habitat- an event which proves just the beginning of mysterious happening around the Band. Out of a desire not to spoil, I won't mention anything else about the plot- except this one detail. There are killer robots. Personally, I consider this a boon to any story.
Dreyfus is an interesting character. Reynolds is a well-known fan of the Pulp Noir genre, and Dreyfus has the feel of an aging private detective- there's a dogged determination about him that's quite palpable, and you really do side with him right from his introduction. He has a semi-sidekick in the form of Thalia Ng (she with the unpronounceable second name) and unfortunately Thalia isn't nearly as interesting. Hints of back-story are dropped, but hardly capitalised on. The author seems to realise this, for Thalia finds herself shoved rudely into the background during the latter half of the book so that we can focus on her far more interesting superior and his increasingly murky past.
There is a dark secret. There are conspiracies. There are mind-bending concepts. And there's an intriguing chemistry between Dreyfus and his boss. Still, things don't quite gel to perfection. The ending, logical though it may be, feels hastily drawn and a tad anticlimactic. The aforementioned dark secret doesn't quite strike with the impact it should. And at times, members of the Panoply who aren't Dreyfus (or his boss) appear worryingly easy to manipulate. Still, the story is enjoyable and (apart from the aforementioned side-kick gripe) well-paced. A couple of continuity tie-ins with the wider Revelation Space universe crop up, and are pleasantly surprising in what is otherwise a straight stand-alone prequel. Definitely recommended for anyone who is a fan of Reynolds work, and it would also function well as an introduction... although not, perhaps, as well as Chasm City.
Oh, and Whip Hound weapons are at least as cool as lightsabres.
[Not quite as interesting as the other books in this sequence, but well worth a read]
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