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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
by Becky Chambers (2014)
Often classified as “Space Opera”, Long Way carries more of a personal, slice of life feel, than an epic introduction to the universe. Chambers’ writing focuses on the crew of the Wayfarer and their interactions with each other and the rest of the inhabitants of their universe. The newest member, Rosemary, is in space for the time, and every aspect of this new life carries a learning curve. For the rest of the crew, friendships and rivalries are already well ingrained, individual idiosyncrasies tolerated or loved, and very few secrets exist among them.
The strength of this book lies in the depth of the character interactions and relationships. We get to know the Wayfarer crew along with Rosemary for much of the book. We see how each one loves and hopes, of painful pasts and joyous childhoods. We learn to fear enemies out in the black, and monsters roaming distant planets. We are shown how priorities can shift from species to species. All of this makes for a a gorgeous tapestry of a life that is alien to what we know today, but still filled with the themes that weave throughout our society.
For all of the wonderful complexity of the relationships, there are few ways in which Long Way falls a little short of expectations. The characters themselves can sometimes feel flat or 2D. Despite some major revelations, legal ramifications, loss of loved ones, and what should be new understanding of the world, none of the characters truly evolve from the beginning of the book to the end. Engineer Kizzy is outgoing and energetic, her partner Jenks broody and more interested in computer and AI systems than the biological beings surrounding him. Algaeist Corbin has his entire life proven false, is saved by the crew member he can’t stand. . . and nothing changes.
Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the story telling also leaves the reader with no real sense of a central plot beyond “travel to the destination and get the job done.” There is no major antagonist. Each problem is fairly well handled before the next one crops up. Even the explosive ending is pretty heavily foreshadowed.
If you enjoy strong world-building and learning how the people of that world live, work, survive, love or play, this is an excellent read. If you need heroes and villains, quests or treasures, Long Way may not be a choice to hold your attention.
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