Spearpoint is a city unlike any other. A vast spire dozens of leagues in height, the city and the world around it are divided into zones of different energy states. Different technology and energy sources work in each zone, and any person who spends long periods in another zone may be doomed to death without periodic drug treatments.
Dr. Quillon is a pathologist, performing post-mortems for the city's law-enforcement agencies in the relatively high-tech zone of Neon Heights. But when Quillon's past catches up with him he has to flee the city. Aided by a young woman named Meroka, a specialist in smuggling packages where they need to go, he finds the world beyond the city to be a strange and alien place. When an unprecedented zonal shift threatens to destroy Spearpoint altogether, Quillon finds himself torn between flight and finding a way of helping ensure the survival of his home.
Terminal World is the ninth novel (and twelfth book overall) by Welsh SF author Alastair Reynolds, best-known for his Revelation Space universe and stand-alone novels such as Pushing Ice and Century Rain. Shortly after this book was handed in, Gollancz gave Reynolds a massive £1 million ($1.6 million at the time) contract for ten new books over ten years. Based on the impressive quality of Terminal World I'm not surprised by this.
Reynolds' normal setting is far-future space opera, usually slanted with elements of gothic horror and film noir. Terminal World sees him doing something different. The novel seems to be more inspired by the New Weird, with some of the atmosphere of China Mieville's novels seeping through (most notably, and interestingly as it came out after Reynolds completed this book, The City and the City, although the lovingly-rendered city also invites comparisons with Perdido Street Station). There is also a strong steampunk flavouring to the novel. Some of the noir elements are still present, particularly in the earlier sections detailing the flight from the city, but the horror elements are restricted to a few creatures and one of the antagonists.
The characters are excellent, well-rounded and convincing. Quillon and Meroka are solid protagonists, people from different backgrounds allied together by circumstances. The other characters they encountered in their travels, such as Fray and Captain Curtana, are likewise well-handled. In my review of FlashForward I attributed that novel's old-fashioned style to its expositionary characters who exist purely to serve the plot. Here the characters are fleshed-out and believable in their own right.
Reynolds also seems to have developed a hitherto unsuspected superb aptitude for writing great battle sequences, with heavy autocannon-armed airships blasting away at one another, the repelling of boarding actions and so on. It's only a small part of the book, but it's great stuff.
At the core of Terminal World lies a huge mystery. Interestingly, it's a mystery that the central characters, Quillon and Meroka, have no real interest in. One of the side-characters does and spends some time discussing it, but at the end of the day he backs off from pursuing it, leaving the reader to digest all the small pieces of evidence that have built up over the course of the novel. What is Spearpoint and what was its original purpose? Why is this the 'Terminal World'? What is the secret of the mysterious Bane and the zones? What is the Eye of God? Enough information is presented for the reader to come to several different conclusions, but the author leaves some of these answers pleasingly ambiguous. There is certainly plenty of scope for a sequel or further books in the same setting.
Terminal World (*****) is superbly well-written with great characters and a fiendishly intriguing mystery. It is a mixture of old-school planetary romance, hard SF, the New Weird and steampunk, all tied up in one rich and enjoyable package. Reynolds tries something new here and it pays off, delivering one of his very best novels to date. Terminal World will be published in the UK on 15 March 2010 and in the USA on 1 June 2010. The absolutely gorgeous UK cover art can be seen in its full glory here. Reynolds' next work will be the 11K Trilogy, which explores humanity's development over eleven thousand years of future history.