The Hugo-nominated novella by Alastair Reynolds explores complex issues of identity, religion, and memory in a science fiction setting, but keeps its characters at a distance reducing the tension and drama of this shorter piece of fiction. The story felt like it should have been much longer and took more time to establish each character as the brisk pace left me disoriented at moments and not rooting for any of the characters. Scur is a soldier in an intergalactic war who is captured and tortured using an exceptionally cruel method of being injected with a slow bullet, a device that bores through the body causing excruciating pain.
The story jumps into the future where most of the action takes place on an isolated ship that has survived for thousands of years with the crew in hibernation deep freeze sleep. The transition happens quickly and left me confused for several sections before catching up on the situation. The major point of tension is Scur's desire to avenge herself against her torturer the ruthless Orvin who she discovers is also aboard the ship when she stages a coup of the crew and takes over the vessel.
The action slows down considerably, and Reynolds explored memory and religion using the microcosm of a ship's crew. The crew is seen from the top down as Scur establishes leaders and they work for survival. There is never a feeling of cramped ship life and many of the riots and disturbances are glossed over rapidly in expositional paragraphs that don't focus on characters or any action moments and simply serve as informative portions of the story. The memoir nature from Scur's first person perspective reels the story into one viewpoint though I never found her especially likable or interesting.
There is a large world around the story and much of the world building is glossed over to keep the story tight and tied to the issues involved the isolated crew, but thousands of years of history are relayed within brief snippets. World-building is definitely one of Reynolds's skills and I found the nature of the war, the history, the competing religions, and the extra-terrestrials threats all interesting. I would be curious to see the author's work in a larger format, like a sprawling series of novels.
This book should satisfied fans of classic science fiction who are looking for something similar and does posit curious philosophies. The characters were never fully formed and final change at the climax came off as a bit forced with a story continuing on further that seems to be a more interesting tale, though the novella wraps up before the reader can learn more. I wouldn't think this novella has a high chance of winning at the awards next weekend.