[book review] Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds


This morning I finished listening to the audiobook of Elysium Fire by Alastair Reynolds. It’s a Science Fiction story set in Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe. It was read by the wonderful John Lee, a Welsh voice actor whose voice and accent I find incredibly soothing. I think I first listened to a Peter F. Hamilton story because it was read by Lee, and Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe is now one of my favorites. I enjoyed Lee’s reading of Elysium Fire, as well, and thought he handled the variety of voices in a way that was distinctive without being grating or jarring.

Elysium Fire is a sequel to The Prefect, one of my favorite standalone Reynolds novels. I enjoyed the story, but it didn’t hit on the points that made me love the first one. The Voi story underpinning the entire mystery was interesting, and I thought the flashbacks were timed appropriately to match the unfolding story. I appreciated the connections to The Prefect, like getting to see Dreyfus’ wife without it being a pointless tangent, or how Jane has (or hasn’t) adjusted to post-Clockmaker life. The present-day story was ultimately dissatisfying, though, and I think it falls into the “saved by higher beings” problem that The Prefect also had. Have a superhuman problem? Don’t worry. There’s a superhuman resolution! Elysium Fire’s flashbacks were paced slowly. The present-day story was frantic and desperate, but even the action scenes could get bogged down when focusing on who is deploying their whiphound to do what. Overall I enjoyed the book, but it left me wanting a new story that lets our characters shine a little more.

I have two major gripes. The first is a quasi-deus ex machina annoyance. Our protagonists, as desperate as they were, didn’t seem to accomplish anything significant without help from an advanced intelligence. Help that was offered and not sought out. Help from a being who gave the impression they could have finished the puzzle in the blink of an eye if they so wished, but there needs to be something for the organics to do and plus I’m busy, so don’t make it too easy for them. I get frustrated when the protagonists are ultimately unnecessary except as pawns. It was nice to get to see Jane and Tom make bad decisions and have to deal with the fallout, but I felt like the mystery, the actual plot of “why are these people dying and how do we stop it” was moved along too often by a machine intelligence that offered convenient scraps of data. And the end sets us up for more advanced intelligence meddling. The best human detective moment was when Ng connected the candelabras with Addison-Lovelace. In fact, Ng and Bancal’s scenes were my favorite in the book. They accomplished the most, were in stressful situations together, and their relationship grew. Any scene with Aurora was my least favorite. I look forward to Ng/Bancal buddy cop scenarios.

I love the view into the Glitter Band that we got in The Prefect, the varied habitats that exist and the tiny excursions we had into a few of them. We get to [meaningfully] interact with Ultra and Conjoiner culture and tech. We don’t get quite the same glimpse in the sequel. The most descriptive setting is the one in the series of flashbacks. We get to know our main and secondary characters a little better at the sacrifice of scene variety. A habitat, an argument. A different habitat, a different argument. The vague setting of the necropolis, a discussion. More necropolis, a different discussion. We get to go down to Yellowstone, but we don’t get to see pre-plague Chasm City. I enjoyed Carousel Addison-Lovelace because we met another micro-society in a unique environment, a throwback to the encounters I loved in The Prefect. This is what I want more of: our protagonists interacting with a unique environment and set of characters, and then repeating again in a new environment. Show me the wonders of the Glitter Band as backdrop to a story in which humans make a difference. Not just one wonder. Many wonders! And not just a rehashing of wonders from the last story.

While writing this review, I saw that The Prefect has been renamed to Aurora Rising. I worry that this, along with the ending of Elysium Fire, indicates a further reliance on Aurora in the Panoply stories. As if these are not Tom, Thalia and Sparver’s stories, but rather Aurora’s stories with humans in them. I detest that point of view and hope I’m mistaken. Aurora is not a sympathetic character and I would just like her to go away. I don’t care if she’s destroyed or locked forever in digital combat. I don’t want to hear about it. She can be a footnote if it’s that important to give closure. Please don’t focus on a character that has given us no reason to care about her. And no, suddenly humanizing her doesn’t work, either.

Still, predictions of doom shouldn’t keep us from enjoying what’s available. If you enjoyed The Prefect, then Elysium Fire may be a pleasant time passer. I strongly recommend reading The Prefect first, though. Too many things build on the first novel for this one to be standalone.