THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET
Rosemary Harper is a newly certified clerk, signing onto the crew of a tunnelling ship (which creates wormholes, which act as shortcuts between planets and solar systems) called the Wayfarer in order to get away from her past on Mars. Once she’s on-board, though, the crew is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance: To create a tunnel to the relatively unknown planet of Hedra Ka, deep in the territory of the warring Toremi Clans.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is Becky Chambers’ debut novel, and was originally (self-)published in 2014. Later this year, it will be followed by a companion novel called A Closed and Common Orbit.
The overarching storyline involves a long trip to Hedra Ka, but there are many things that happen on the way there, and – as each of these events is relatively isolated, due to taking place in very different locations – this lends itself towards an episodic style of storytelling. For example, in one of the earlier story arcs, the crew stop on a small moon called Cricket, in order to buy some new parts for their ship; later on, they discover a damaged Aeluon ship; and at one point they also visit Sissix’s home planet – none of these events have any real connection to each other, and could, really, be read in any order. What mainly ties the book together are the characters, who have individual story arcs that we’re brought back to continuously over the course of the story.
My main issue with the story is that both the title and summary of this book imply that the bulk of the plot would be spent with the Wayfarer isolated in deep space. It wasn’t. It took me about half of the book before I realised that they weren’t still preparing for their journey and tying up loose ends, but had actually already left, because so much was going on, and they had so much contact with other ships, planets and colonies. This isn’t exactly a failing on the part of the book, but it is jarring, and was not at all what I expected.
Nominally, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is Rosemary’s story, but in actuality, just as much emphasis is put on the other characters in the book, all of whom have interesting back-stories, and many of whom are – like Rosemary – trying to escape their pasts. There’s Ashby, the ship’s captain; Sissix, the friendly Aandrisk pilot; Dr. Chef, the Grum, who is both the ship’s doctor and its chef (as the name suggests); Kizzy and Jenks, the mechanical and computer technicians, respectively; Lovey, the ship’s AI; Ohan, a Sianat Pair Navigator – half their mindspace is taken up by the Sianat, and the other half by a sentient virus called the Whisperer; and lastly Corbin, the ship’s bad-tempered algaeist (and, since ships in this universe are apparently fuelled by algae, his job is pretty important).
The diversity of the cast is seriously impressive, and every one of these characters is well fleshed-out and sympathetic. I very quickly found myself loving them all (even Corbin! 😉 ).
All the conflicting personalities and cultural differences on board the Wayfarer make for a really interesting blend of friendships and rivalries, but – superseding everything else – a great sense of dependency and respect; it’s very clear that all the characters know that they need each other in order to survive, and they’re always able to put their differences aside when things get difficult. In that way, they felt more like a family than just a group of co-workers…
There’s also a few romances in the book, but while they’re very important to the development of the characters in question, there’s not a huge amount of emphasis put on them, story-wise. They’re there (and very well-developed), but they’re definitely not the book’s driving force, which I found quite refreshing (probably since I read so much YA, where romance is often the main focus).
Chambers has built up an intriguing universe in this book: She’s created a whole slew of different species, and – at least in the case of the (several) ones that are aboard the Wayfarer – their planets of origin and societies are interesting, distinct from one another, and very well-developed. The Aeluon and Harmagians (none of whom are part of the Wayfarer crew) are also mentioned quite frequently, and we are able to learn a lot about their cultures as well over the course of the story – but Chambers never seemed to resort to info-dumps in order to present this information; it was all conveyed at a very natural pace.
There are, however, a few races and places that aren’t explored in such depth. The Toremi, in particular, were a mystery to the bitter end, despite a Toremi point-of-view character appearing later on in the book, and considering their race’s importance to the plotline, I would’ve liked to have learnt more about them. Perhaps this is something that will be fixed in the companion novel, but considering what I’ve learnt about A Closed and Common Orbit so far, I have my doubts.
The writing is very engaging and quick-paced, but still slow enough to allow for a lot of character development, which is this book’s real strength. However, the episodic narrative makes it very difficult to determine how quickly time is passing: The whole book takes place over the course of just over a year, but it feels so much shorter that I would never have been able to keep track of the timeline if not for the dates at the beginning of each new chapter…
OVERALL IMPRESSION [4/5]
A really good, interesting book, that was rather misleadingly pitched as an isolation-style space opera. If you can get past that, however, there’s a rich world, a likeable, diverse cast, and some really fun story arcs to enjoy.
Perfect for Star Trek fans, and particularly fans of The Original Series and The Next Generation, to whom the episodic nature of the storytelling will likely appeal. As for other books like this one, the Saga graphic novel series is another character-driven space opera with a diverse, interesting cast…