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on 17 March 2010
I have to say that I strongly disagree with the rather indifferent reviews of this book posted so far. I have read all of Reynolds' books to date and this makes a strong claim to be his best.

For starters, and almost incidentally, it is the best steampunk novel I have read. Reynolds produces a plausible plot device for examining a society trapped at a particular technological point, and his steam or dieselpunk technology is grittily plausible and realistic, not a series of fashion accessories or nostalgic anachronisms, as is all too common in this genre.

Secondly, this book requires a bit of intellectual effort on the part of the reader. The reader is required to use some imagination and to draw inferences and make conclusions from tiny nuggets of fact dropped into the characters' conversations. The book contains no "infodumps". The true nature of Spearpoint is not spelled out directly, even at the end of the novel. An observant reader will fairly quickly come to a huge revelation about the nature of Spearpoint's world which never becomes remotely obvious to any of the characters involved. One particularly ironic point is the existence of a quasi-religious "Testament", which most of the characters dismiss as mythological, but the more objective viewpoint of the reader can see is largely historical fact about the planet's history.

There are also some excellent action scenes, particularly a desperate airship assault on the city in the face of progressive technological failures, reducing the crew from machine guns and diesel engines to cutlasses and crossbows in the space of ten minutes. The characters are excellent, particularly a foul mouthed bodyguard heroine.

If you like your SF one-dimensional and spoon fed to you as easily digestible gloop, this book probably isn't for you. If you are willing to use your intellect and your imagination to fill in the tantalising gaps left by the author you will be amply rewarded.
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on 12 October 2012
I actually enjoyed this book right up until the end where it just sort of stopped. I had guessed that it might, because the very nature of the characters and the setting meant that there could be no meaningful "eureka" conclusion and explanation, which I know is often a good plot device but in this case just left me feeling annoyed.

The world has gone wrong because an important piece of transport technology (stargate style? noone knows) was partly destroyed and/ or interfered with by aliens/ an alien intelligence? which has created weird zones that have slight but importantly different physical constants.

A solution to the problem is guessed at in the form of a child that is capable of controlling the misbehaving machinery and the story revolves around getting here back to the heart of the problem.

They get her there (via numerous trials & tribulations) and then it ends. The story was fine but I just felt it needed more at the end.

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on 31 May 2010
The galaxy of `literary' science-fiction is a relatively small one, but its brightest star by far is Alastair Reynolds. 'Terminal World' offers a highly original narrative, characters that are morally and psychologically complex and, best of all, a story that is told through accomplished and sophisticated writing. Reynolds' seemingly effortless prose is abundant with creative, diverse metaphors, witty dialogue and acute situational observations; factors which are so often lacking in science-fiction writing.

Then again, to even call 'Terminal World' a Sci-fi novel is to be brash with genre assumptions. The book is devoid of spaceships, aliens, other planets; in fact, it's without any of the defining tropes of science-fiction. The crux of the novel is the atmosphere-piercing city of Spearpoint - a towering metropolis divided into the `zones' - layers of the city each with their own technological limitations. Thus the base of Spearpoint (horse town) is almost medieval; the next layer (steamville) is early-industrial in its scope. The `zones' advance in this way until the city's very highest `Celestial' levels, in which winged post-humans manipulate nano technology and can cure any ailment. The technology of the `zones' isn't enforced by governments or clerics, but by the nature of reality itself in this far-future vision of Earth.
This plot device enables Reynolds to enjoy an unusual amount of freedom in terms of setting and characterisation. 'Terminal World' is very odd sci-fi; a smorgas-board convergence of steampunk, fantasy, planetary romance... the novel even borrows from pirate, naval and military genres. Crucially, though, the brilliantly original setting isn't ancillary to the plot in anyway - it's unusual, but the setting is the plot; I thought that the concept of the `zones' permeated the narrative in fascinating ways - allowing deep exploration of social, moral, psychological and cultural themes.

Which leads me to the book's characters. The majority of whom I found to be convincing, if unusual. Alastair Reynolds is often criticized for a lack of complex characterisation; and I agree that several of his early works centre upon...mannequin personalities. Any such problems have been addressed and overcome here.

I thought Quillon, our protagonist, to be a wonderfully bizarre and captivating personality - faced with multifaceted moral dilemmas throughout, he is constructed sympathetic to the reader (gonna get technical for a second here: the prose is formed in `indirect free-discourse', so although it's framed in the third person singular, the viewpoints of Quillon and the reader are converged); he is physically feeble yet intellectually firm.
I don't want to give too much away regarding the actual story - suffice to say I found it very original and, like Spearpoint itself, built upon many layers of differing complexity - fast-paced battles and events play out around complicated politics; plus Reynolds offers a very witty and fresh take on the old fantasy cliché of a `chosen one'. Its themes are numerous and engaging - from the philosophical nature of history to cartography and the politics of leadership - there's a lot going on; even, I believe, some convincing attempts at allegory.

The final revelations come thick and fast - with the eventual explanation of the true nature of the `zones' offering a mind-blowing denouement to the action. If you've ever read anything by Alastair Reynolds, you'll know that he's a true master of `endings' - always shocking, never sweetly resolved or cliché and perpetually, relentlessly creative.

Clearly I thoroughly enjoyed 'Terminal World' - it's brilliantly well-written, and, in my humble opinion, a genuine and successful attempt at sci-fi literature.

Finally, I'd just like to comment on this novel's exceptional cover art. I normally regard jacket artwork as neither here-nor-there (especially in sci-fi, a genre plagued by clichéd and over-used imagery), but Chris Moore's painting for 'Terminal World' is a truly striking visual interpretation of Reynolds' idea. Spearpoint towers over the other figures and illustrations; in much the same way as the fictional city dominates the narrative landscape of the novel, `like God's own hard-on' - as the author wryly puts it.
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on 29 November 2012
The plot background of technological zones is intriguing and fairly original (the Well of Souls series probably pre-empted it, amongst others). However quite a few gaping plotholes spoil the enjoyment - in particular the "Skullboys" who appear as omnipresent Mad-max bandits but have no obvious origin or continuity - what do they eat?, where do new ones come from?, why do they bother attacking people?, the civilisation is supposedly stable rather than immediately post-apocalypse so these questions need to be answered to make the novel hang together. Overall, passable to read on a train to pass time but definitely not something to file in the read-again category.
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on 25 March 2012
I'm a big fan of Reynolds' work in general, but this one didn't gel. It's an interesting premise, both in terms of the state of the world as presented and the future-history that got us to that point, but it just isn't credible - the infrastructure required to support the higher levels of Spearpoint simply doesn't exist at the necessary scale. For example, the zones don't permit a decently sized steel rolling mill anywhere near the city, and don't provide for the heavy materials to be transported in from further away. If this had been painted as a point on a steep continuum of decay, then fair enough, but it is made out to be reasonably steady-state (events of the novel notwithstanding) and it just wouldn't work.
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on 26 July 2010
Short version:
Sub-par and seemingly hurried Alastair Reynolds effort. Avoid this one, and go for one of his earlier books instead.


Long version:
Over the years I have picked up five or six books by Alastair Reynolds. While I can't say that they inspired in me an irresistible urge to reread them, I still recall them as tight and reasonably well crafted. I basically found it easy enough to give the Visa card a whirl in his direction when I had a hankering for science fiction. This easygoing relationship has been given a nasty knock by the book currently under review. It has many hallmarks of a stopgap novel, and Reynold's heart does not seem to be in it.

I am always suspicious of the picaresque format where the protagonist is constantly on the road, with no clear aim in sight. The plot is reduced to a string of events where idea shards sitting in a scrapbook somewhere can be tied together with minimal ado. I am not really in the market for scrapbook clearances, and I want plots that engage. Reynolds additionally commits a grave sin by trying to link these events by means of forward-looking signals. Chapter X: "Well I sure hope we don't run into them Skullboys" [and as frightening names go, "skullboys" doesn't really cut it, does it?]. Chapter Y: run into Skullboys, "but at least we haven't seen them Vorgs, phew!" Chapter Z: are attacked by vorgs. You get the idea. Intriguing to me is also that the main protagonist (an educated man apparently) is utterly clueless about the world he inhabits. This impregnable ignorance is what prompts other characters to woodenly tell him, and me, how the world works. Believable? I think not.

There is a lot of plain sloppy writing in Terminal World. An example. On page 204 someone named Curtana falls asleep, utterly exhausted by her extreme effort over the last few days. We then get an exchange between two other characters that cannot last more than 5 minutes, if that. Then (p. 205): "Curtana, who had woken from her drowse, said, `Here we go.' This is not the work of a meticulous author who feels for his story. This is someone who works with mercenary haste.

The Reynolds books I have read before verged on space opera. I am not sure if this huge canvas somehow made me overlook or forgive character diction. At least I have no memory of it being other than reasonable. Here it is often almost farcically awkward. The stilted sentences that keep popping out of most characters' mouths almost becomes a generic diversion. I found myself wondering whether it was authorial inability or part of a master plan telling us something about the barrenness of this future world. But on occasion Reynolds does endow a character with an idiosyncratic way of speaking. "Meroka", for instance, speaks like a stereotypical cowboy eyeing the spittoon in the corner. A doctor speaks like a surgeon pulled out of a Sherlock Holmes novel. Regardless, dialogue is consistently robotic and a chore to get through.


Should you buy it?
I doubt that it will come as a surprise that I cannot recommend this book to anyone. It is poorly written, and the story is astoundingly weak. I will browse Amazon reviews carefully before buying his next one. On the bright side, you have found your way to Alastair Reynolds, and some of his earlier works are indeed worth purchasing. How he has managed to produce this dud, I don't understand.
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on 24 October 2011
What an excellent story! The pundits call it "steampunk" and I suppose it is that - more importantly, it is a mystery. A mystery lies at the soul of the tale; how did things become so strange. Initially we are thrown into a slightly futuristic era; a body is found; an angel. Before long we are thrown headlong into a thrilling pursuit and a world of mysterious "levels" where technologies begin to die and life becomes a little more brutal. This tale has Homeric qualities - like all good tales it is an Odyssey taking us into great mysteries and hinting at answers. Angels and monsters, heroes and villains, thrilling and gripping - highly recommended!
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on 14 October 2011
Having really enjoyed some of Reynold's previous SF novels I was very disappointed with Terminal World. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the blurb regarding the setting and theme of the story.

Slow pace, plodding dialogue, poor characterisation, implausible premise riddled with inconsistencies.

It feels like the author has tried to jump on some kind of bandwagon (steampunk), but unfortunately failed to deliver. Iain Banks has done this kind of low-tech society in a high-tech universe so much better.
Several times I have considered giving up in this book, something I rarely do. I have decided to stick with it as 2/3 of the way through certain things happen that suggest it may yet get more satisfying in terms of ideas.

The delivery of said ideas really lets it down though.

I hope Alistair Reynolds goes back to what he's best at soon.
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on 27 June 2013
I usually really enjoy Reynolds, he's been a consistently good write for years. Unfortunately I just couldn't get into this book. As with his latest turkey Blue Remembered Earth the characters were difficult to get into and the fact that main plot path was pretty opaque didn't help either. The plot is also dull, not quite as dull as Blue Remembered Earth but dull none the less.

My advice would be skip this and Blue Remembered Earth and focus on his earlier books, Reynolds has clearly lost his way and its not clear he'll ever get it back if he continues like this.
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on 18 December 2014
Anything Reynolds writes I'd be enthralled with. A fantastic author, and this is no exception. For me (and I KNOW this is considered heresy in some quarters), he outranks both Clarke & Asimov. And they were both brilliant too.
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