I haven’t done a book review for a while here, and I was planning my next post to be a round up of a number of books I’ve read lately, like the last one. But I just finished a book that was so good that I felt it deserved its own review.
First, here’s the jacket copy of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Amazon link) by Becky Chambers:
When Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer, she isn’t expecting much. The Wayfarer, a patched-up ship that’s seen better days, offers her everything she could possibly want: a small, quiet spot to call home for a while, adventure in far-off corners of the galaxy, and distance from her troubled past.
But Rosemary gets more than she bargained for with the Wayfarer. The crew is a mishmash of species and personalities, from Sissix, the friendly reptillian pilot, to Kizzy and Jenks, the constantly sparring engineers who keep the ship running. Life on board is chaotic, but more or less peaceful – exactly what Rosemary wants.
Until the crew are offered the job of a lifetime: the chance to build a hyperspace tunnel to a distant planet. They’ll earn enough money to live comfortably for years… if they survive the long trip through war-torn interstellar space without endangering any of the fragile alliances that keep the galaxy peaceful.
But Rosemary isn’t the only person on board with secrets to hide, and the crew will soon discover that space may be vast, but spaceships are very small indeed.
This is the kind of book I’ve been waiting to read for years. It’s a slice-of-life space opera set on board a working class ship with a varied and well-drawn crew. The stakes aren’t very high, which is to say the plot isn’t anything galaxy shattering. It’s more just a number of small adventures as the Wayfarer‘s crew travels towards the galaxy’s centre on a job. To compare this book to one of its probable inspirations, this is more like a collection of Firefly episodes than the movie Serenity. Each little sub-story (usually taking up one or two chapters) allows a different character to have their moment in the spotlight, and we learn a great deal about the characters’ stories and motivations along the way. By the end of the book I felt at home with the crew as I did with the Serenity or Normandy‘s crew. I look forward to reading many more stories about the Wayfarer and its people.
If I haven’t implied it enough, I’ll say it outright: the setting is like a mix between Firefly and a grungier version of Mass Effect. It’s a galaxy teeming with cultures, with half a dozen or so fleshed-out alien races featured prominently. Members of several of those races are crew members of the Wayfarer. The aliens are in that middle range of not-too-human and not-too-alien (see also: Mass Effect‘s aliens). These aren’t Blindsight-style hard-sf alien creatures, but they are interesting species with distinct cultures. I could picture every race quite well in my head and it makes me want to go and try to draw several of them. That’s always a good thing.
Information about the worldbuilding comes naturally through character conversations; and there are also a number of letters, news stories, encyclopedia entries, and other little pieces breaking up the prose, all of which help to flesh out the setting.
The book also prominently features one of my favourite SF concepts, one which I’ve rarely seen explored in written fiction: Interspecies romances and relationships. There are two prominent ones (three if you also count a human-AI relationship) and they’re all touching and wonderfully explored. One of these relationships develops organically over the course of the novel in such a beautiful way. It was my absolute favourite aspect of the book.
Despite a tragic moment towards the end of the book, the overall tone of this book is optimism. It builds a bright, co-operative future, and we meet a good deal of decent people throughout the book. It feels like a future I would love to live in. With that in mind, I would categorize this alongside The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison as a triumphant return in recent times for positive genre fiction. Rejoice, the age of grimdark is over!
Now BRING ON THE SEQUELS!