This might be one of my favorite stand alone SF books ever. I was already a big fan of Reynolds’ Revelation Space trilogy, and this book proves all the more what a fantastic author he can be, also when he limits himself to just 500 pages.
It’s set in a different universe than the RS-books, and broadly deals with 6 million year old human characters defending their line of explorers against extinction. The book has everything: a good mystery, a love story, a great chase sequence, good action, a possible mole, a whodunnit, a sense of wonder, and even a snippet of well done fantasy in a virtual reality sub-plotline. It also has some of the greatest robot characters I’ve come across.
What this book does very well is tell a great story, without focussing too much on the science or technology. A lot of it is implied, without it being as hard SF as Revelation Space was. That’s what you get when you tell a story with 6-million year characters: they’ve seen it all, and the science & technology is just like breathing air for them: for them, everything is normal as can be, dealing with all purpose nano-machines in a tube, or state of the art neural uplinks to ships with full on AI, and the book succeeds really well in translating that feeling of naturalness, without all the exposition it needs in a Banks’ Culture novel, or even Reynolds’ own RS trilogy.
Another plus is the prose: Reynolds really writes elegantly here, with at times gripping, beautiful similes. The construction of the story is that of a writer at the height of his powers too: well done, without being a construction for the sake of itself. There are no real loose ends, and everything ties together neatly.
House of Suns starts off a bit slow, but after about 70 pages the book turns into a genuine page turner. It’s a good place to start if you haven’t read any Reynolds. It has the benefit of being a relatively short stand alone book: you don’t need to invest reading 1500 pages to get to the thrilling, moving conclusion. I’m not sure if I like this more than the entire RS-trilogy, I’ll have to reread everything in a couple of years.
Some argue Reynolds touches on a lot in this book, but doesn’t work out everything. But there’s no need for that, the focus is this story. It’s partly what I like about it: the book is painted on very broad canvas, but still just features one, comprehensive, well-done scene. I definitely hope he’ll someday write another book set in the same universe: there’s enough that would merit other novels of their own, or even a sequel to this story.
(Update 10/2018: After some terrible reading experiences with some of his other novels, I have given up on Reynolds completely. Part of that is my evolving taste, but he’s also been writing books at a pacing that simply can’t keep up with quality. He needs to eat and pay rent, I get it, but it’s such a waste of potential. All the reviews are here, and aside from the Revelation Space books, and this one, they are all essentially negative.)
originally written on the 25th of December, 2014
Awesome review! Yes, one of his very best books!
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I feel much the same as you, regarding this particular novel (it absolutely kicks ass, in my humble) as well as the debatable quality of his work since. I recall reading his sequel to “The Prefect” and being beside myself with a sort of aimless confusion, wanting very much to enjoy the book but finding myself unable to shake the sensation that, for all the words he’d shoved together to force the unplanned sequel into existence, he’d left out any actual artistic justification for its conception. Like the difference between childbirth and passing a kidney stone.
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Ha, that’s a harsh metaphor at the end there, but I cannot but agree. It seems the quality control is gone, and Reynolds writes for a living. That’s well within his rights obviously, and it seems to work, as he keeps on selling, but I have checked out a long time ago.