“Living in space was anything but quiet. Grounders never expected that. For anyone who had grown up planetside, it took some time to get used to the clicks and hums of a ship, the ever-present ambience that came with living inside a piece of machinery… Silence belonged to the vacuum outside.”
When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone.
The plot setup led me to believe that the main thrust story would involve the crew getting into trouble at Hedra Ka, where Galactic politics would enter into the equation, and the desire for the resources to be mined in Toremi territory would lead to problems for the Wayfarer. However, much of the story actually takes place aboard the Wayfarer on the journey out to Hedra Ka. They must travel there the long way, since there are no existing wormholes to speed their trip. From there they will punch a tunnel to a marker that will be placed at the other end by another crew. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.
The long journey means that the book is heavy on world-building and character development. Chambers dedicates much of her energy to fleshing out the various species that can be found aboard the Wayfarer, and beyond. The captain, Ashby, is a fellow human, but while Rosemary grew up on Mars, Ashby is an Exodan, raised aboard a multi-generational space ship that fled the dying Earth. His lover, Pei, does not live on the Wayfarer, and because she is an Aeluon, their relationship must be kept secret. Pacifist, tolerant Ashby is a sharp contrast to the algaeist, Corbin, who provides the ship’s fuel, but not much else. The techs, Kizzy and Jenks, are also human, but have their own unique histories as well. Jenks is in love with Lovey, the AI who monitors the ship, and returns his affection. The pilot, Sissix, is an Aandrisk, a free-loving reptilian species, but when they punch a new wormhole, she is guided by Ohan, a Sianat Pair. Their species is infected by a virus that enables them to perceive space-time differently. They are all fed and cared for by Dr. Chef, who hails from a dying species that fought itself to the edge of extinction. I am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope.
Chambers frequently changes point-of-view between the various characters, who all have their own unique perspective on things. Humanity is not the default, and many key insights and perspectives come from the non-human characters. However, these frequent changes weren’t always well delineated in my Kindle edition, and I often had to backtrack when I realized there had been a jump. Nevertheless, I enjoyed getting to hear from all of the different characters, and seeing the various situations that arose through each unique cultural lens. I really appreciated the attention Chambers put into the inter-species relationships, and the accommodation of differences. If you’d asked me in advance if I could ship a romance between a human and an AI, I probably would not have been into it, but she easily managed to get me on Jenks and Lovey’s side. One benefit of having put off delving into this series for so long is that I can immediately go read the other books in this series, although the follow-ups focus on different characters. But I am excited to get more of this universe, and the unique sensibility Chambers has developed for it.
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