Three words. MONGOLS. IN. SPACE.
Yes, that's right, oh my blogettes, this story concerns the future that sprang from an alternate past in which the Mongol Empire did not fall apart after the death of Temujin, better known to history as Genghis Khan, but went on to conquer the entire world, which became known simply as Greater Mongolia. Sure, there are still pesky pockets of, e.g., Buddhists and Nestorian Christians and the odd Muslim here and there, but basically the Mongol culture, horses and all, dominated everything right up to and including humanity's journey to the stars.
A funny old thing, though, Mongols in space. The culture transmits to a space-born empire pretty well, if one can imagine people taking their steppe ponies with them on their spaceships (and hey, Reynolds has depicted a people who plan to take elephants into space with them, so why not ponies?) and still functioning without the Zero, which these Space Mongols still insist is a fruity Arab affectation they'll have no truck with, even though it makes their science and engineering a bit clunky and cumbersome. These are people who get drunk on fermented mare's milk and found a way to sing more than one note at a time, folks. They do stuff their own way. Even in space.
I'm ever astounded at how Reynolds managed to convey the scope and sweep, not only of a galactic Mongol Empire, but of what is essentially a multiverse, in just 85 tight pages.* And it's not just this empire he's describing, but its unique settlement of inhospitable worlds, like in this passage:
"There were no fixed communities on the moon. Instead, immense spiderlike platforms, mounted on six or eight intricate jointed legs, picked their way across the ever-shifting terrain in awesome slow motion."**And oh, there's a tight and nifty little plot that still manages to convey a sense of grand scale, too. It involves a secret government agent, a woman named Yellow Dog (one of a series of Reynolds' ass-kicking female characters who would not pass a Bechdel test so much as beat the crap out of you -- literally or metaphorically -- for suggesting it to her) whose mission is to investigate a series of phantom intrusions into the empire's (found and scavenged, a la the Gateways in Frederick Pohls' Heechee books***) interstellar transport network, and who runs afoul of a petty official who turns out to be anything but -- and discovers some mind-blowing secrets about the way things really work out there.
Truly a marvel, this one.
*Anyone who accuses him of bloat obviously hasn't had a look at this story (or any of his short fiction for that matter).
**Shades again of Volyova's Spider Room on the Nostalgia for Infinity in Reynolds' Revelation Space universe.
***Thus perhaps a bit too neatly solving the problem of how a zero-less science and society would someday achieve faster-than-light travel, but I don't care. It's awesome. Did I mention it's Mongols in Space? It's Mongols in Space, people. Drop everything and take the time to listen to Dan Carlin's awesome multipart podcast on the Wrath of the Khans and imagine all of that in space, minus the diminishing/loss of empire bits. Would I want to live in that universe? Hell no. I wouldn't have been allowed to grow up, most likely. But I can admire them from afar, especially their women (Borte!). And cheer them on. And stuff.