With 'Absolution Gap', Alastair Reynolds brings the landmark trilogy he started with 'Revelation Space' to an end. An epic of hard sci-fi, the unnamed trilogy boasts some fascinating technology, a titanic plot, and beautiful ambience. The final installment retains all these elements and manages to throw a few new ones into the mix.
'Absolution Gap' opens decades after the Nostalgia for Infinity landed on the Pattern Juggler planet named Ararat. Between them, Clavain and Scorpio have managed to build a thriving settlement around the landed lighthugger. Recently however, Clavain has grown withdrawn: six months ago he retreated from society entirely. Scorpio promised him isolation, but now events demand Clavain's presence. Something has arrived from space, and there appears to be somebody in it.
Remontoire and the Zodiacal Light are long overdue, and it's possible he's finally arrived. Alternatively, it could be Clavain's nemesis, the Conjoiner Skade. Worse yet, it could be related to the Inhibitors. Soon events will dictate the need to abandon Ararat and begin a desperate journey to save mankind from the machines. Their destination is the mysterious world of Hela, too approach unknown entities known only as 'shadows'.
The second storyline takes place on the aforementioned Hela, about half a century later. The moon was settled after an anomaly was discovered - the gas giant it orbits periodically disappears. Several churches have grown up around this phenomenan, buliding huge roving cathedrals which traverse the planet in order to always keep the gas giant directly above them. Fanatic as they are, the entire population doesn't share their point of view. Sometimes it's necessary to keep less cooperative individuals in line via viral indoctrination.
Rashmika Els is by no means a believer in the Church. She's interested in the Scuttlers, a race long since exterminated on Hela. Unlike the Inhibitor-induced exterminations of the Amarantin and other races, this one seems incomplete. Rashmika has more reason to distrust the church, as her brother disappeared nine years ago. He left for some seasonal work, and soon stopped communicating with his family. Determined to learn the truth, Rashmika escapes from home to infiltrate the Cathedrals.
Reynolds doesn't just jump straight into the second storyline. He prefaces it with an absolutely engrossing account of the founding of Hela. The events which led Quaiche to begin his religion are fascinating, and are slowly exposed as the narratives unfold. Some of the most satisfying imagery in the book is delivered in these parts, and it's truly a testament to Reynolds' vivid imagination.
This time around, he seems to have also addressed some of the deficiencies of his earlier works. Although they're still not perfect, a few of the leading characters have a lot more depth to them. Scorpio is explored more thoroughly than any other character in the series, and the work shows off. It's a easier to sympathise with him, and more enjoyable to read about him. The supporting characters remain a little flat - a few comically so - but their roles are small enough that it doesn't detract from the body of the novel.
True to form, Reynolds returns with some hard technology and it's fascinating to say the least. From hypometric weapons to captivating discussions on Brane theory, he's got plenty of polished ideas to trot out. These ideas are meshed perfectly into the action scenes, and they come fast and furious. The book mantains an intense pace for the most part, with plot developments, backstory elements, and well scripted action sequences interwoven seamlessly.
The atmosphere is wonderful and surreal throughout the entire novel. From the awe-inspiring moving cathedrals on Hela to the gothic interior of the Nostalgia for Infinity every word is literally dripping with ambience. The sense of absolute hopelessness which permeated the earlier novels is muted, although the book still manages to keep a dark tone.
The plot has been the strongest point of the trilogy so far, and 'Absolution Gap' is no exception. In terms of a single book, the plot is immensely enjoyable. There's plenty of well-written plot twists, and a riveting backstory that slowly emerges. There's also the mystery of the mysterious 'shadows' and the truth behind Haldora, the vanishing gas giant. All of this is captivating material, and Reynolds explores it perfectly up until the climactic conclusion.
In terms of the trilogy however, the novel cannot help but disappoint. The Inhibitors themselves seem to only act as a spur, nothing more. Their existence isn't explored any further, and they cease to have any real presence in the story. Granted, it's hard to defeat an enemy billions of years in the making. Reynolds however, wraps them up in a handful of pages. Let's say about, four of them. That's it. To accomplish this, he uses a qestionable plot device which seems to have been invented purely for this ending. There's been no hint about it in earlier novels, and Reynolds spends little time fleshing it out in this one.
So there it is. The ending to an incredible trilogy is probably the best book of the three, but not a very satisfying ending in terms of the overarching plot lines. Still, 'Absolution Gap' manages to be a supremely entertaining book in spite of this sizable flaw. It's got everything you'd want in hard sci-fi novel, including an excellent ending. It just doesn't have everything you'd want in the closing book of a space opera.