The narrative explores the journey of several scions of the Akinya family, who figured heavily in the previous two books in the same universe. Reynolds has done something clever here – setting each novel with protagonists from a new generation of the same family allows the reader to track societal changes, see shifts in viewpoints at the macro level as well as the personal, whilst retaining reader investment in the individual.
In this particular case, we’re given two initial strands to follow; one on Mars, the home of human ambassador’s to the human-created AI civilisation now present there, and another on Crucible – a human colony, home to the mysterious artefact ‘’The Mandala”, as well as the remnants of a tribe of uplifted, intelligent elephants. Not to give the game away, but these two locations may act as the springboard for the rest of the text, but things do quite quickly change.
The Elephants, incidentally, are another key thread running through the series – their interactions with humanity showing the way in which we interact with other living beings unlike ourselves, even as the AI on Mars act as a mirror of how we might act when faced with a machine which is also, in some (or perhaps all) senses, alive.
The characters are a key facet of this novel. I’ve criticised Reynolds before for having characters that seemed to act more like generators of interesting conversations than actual people; he’s done quite a lot to redress the balance here. The Akinya’s, their various friends, loves, and losses, have become quite believable over three books, and Reynolds has managed to avoid getting into the depths of technical exposition at the expense of character growth. Instead we get quite a lot of dialogue trying to build relationships around the characters, and more emotional reflection than might have been visible in earlier work. There’s still a few awkward flashes, emotional responses and intensities which didn’t quite ring true, but the characters do feel a great deal like people.
Worth noting that this is technically a standalone in a shared universe; honestly, I wouldn’t try and read it without having read the other two books first to provide some context. It looks like it would be possible, but a great deal of the text, especially the initial setup, draws on events from the other two books, and the universe of the narrative is much richer, and far less confusing, if you come to this as a conclusion to a multi-generational saga, rather than on its own.
The text is full to bursting with answers to interesting questions, ranging from the philosophical - how do we act in a universe where we’re not alone? How might we interact with artefacts from a civilisation aeons older than our own? To the philosophical – how do we define humanity? If we were told the ultimate truth of the universe, how might we react? Who are we, really, as a species, as individuals? The narrative approaches all of these questions unflinchingly, and does its best to provide an answer to them.
In that respect, it’s a typical Reynolds book, and if you want to explore these questions, and their answers, within a well realised sci-fi universe, with plausible characters and a decent narrative, then this book is worth picking up.