As I’m a fan of its author, this book was a major disappointment. It’s not the different subject matter that makes this a lesser Reynolds’ book, but quite a lot of problems on a structural level. While the book starts promising, it quickly deteriorates, and I had to force myself through the final half.
Terminal World desperately needs major editing: it’s too long, and there’s way, way too much repetition in the dialogue, and in the story as well: how many times do we have to read sentences about the main character, some other character and the word “trust”? Certain plot elements are repeatedly explained in expositionary dialogue again and again. It makes the reading boring.
It also needs a better back story: for the bulk of the book, the true nature of the world wasn’t clear to me. The attempts to provide back story felt a bit haphazard, and as painting by numbers: it feels like Reynolds started with all kinds of neat ideas and sketches, threw them all together, ultimately realized he had to provide a bit more back story, yet couldn’t really deliver. One of Reynolds’ strengths always was a high degree of believability, no matter how outrageous the ideas. That quality is lacking in Terminal World.
Most importantly, the book lacks focus. I was 180 pages in, and still I didn’t know what the story was about, except for the protagonist fleeing for some unclear reason from some unclear enemy. Again, Reynolds throws around a lot of ideas and pop culture tropes (Mad Max, witches, cyborgs, steampunk lung machines, posthuman angels …), but it’s just too much, and ideas or plotlines often are quickly abandoned – why not edit them out totally? Reynolds should have cut back a lot of stuff, and focussed on the main story. Take the “carnivorgs”. Nice wordplay, but bad storytelling: too random, and not needed for the story at all. It only diverts attention and doesn’t contribute a thing, except a mild smirk from the reader, since, come on, “carnivorgs”? The fact that Reynolds feels the need to explicitly explain it later on – “carnivorous cyborgs” – only makes it even stupider. The magic tectomancer part should have been cut back too. It’s not well conceived, and it reeks of Frank Herbert: genetic stuff giving people extraordinary powers. In Dune it was done right, more or less believable. Here it just looks like yet another a coincidence on top of everything else. It should’ve been cut back too, and replaced by something better to drive the story to its ending.
The book could’ve benefitted from shifts in perspective and jumps in time. Now it follows one protagonist chronologically the full 490 pages, and sadly, Quillon isn’t a very interesting character. Things just seem to happen to him, and he more or less only goes with the flow. Not somebody you root for as a reader. He could’ve benefitted from a more detailed back story, maybe flashbacks to that. There’s some romance hidden in his past, but it doesn’t come out and doesn’t make for emotions readers can cling to.
There’s a great novel in here somewhere, but Reynolds didn’t bring it out this time, nor did the publisher’s editors do their job. A missed opportunity. Sad, especially for readers who would judge Reynolds based on this book alone: House of Suns and the Revelation Space-trilogy are thrilling, well-crafted books. Definitely avoid as your first contact with Alastair Reynolds.
originally written on the 17th of April, 2015
(Update 10/2018: 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.)