I just finished reading one of the most amazing pieces of space-operaish sci-fi I’ve ever encountered. I’m sure, by now, anyone reading my reviews has realized that I tend to be a bit harsh, but in the case of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” by Becky Chambers, I’ve got almost nothing bad to say whatsoever. In fact, if it wasn’t for a single element, it might actually have gotten a 10/10 from me. Which is the next best thing to impossible.
Anyway, before I get into my usual breakdown of characters and setting and so on, I’m going to go a bit off my normal pattern and give a description of the book. I don’t normally do this, as I figure it’s a bit arrogant of me to assume I can do a better job than the author themselves, with the blurb they put on their covers. In this case, however…the blurb Becky Chambers used is horribly bland and made me skip over this amazing book multiple times. If it hadn’t been for the strong recommendations of a few amazing people over at the SciFi and Fantasy Book Club I might very well have never read it.
Of course, having said that I’d provide a description, I immedately began to understand why the description was as it is…because the book is character focused and thus hard to write a blurb for. As such, my description is going to be half-overview/half-blurb. Having said that:
“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” is a story about an extremely diverse and eccentric crew, whose job it is to bore wormholes through space to shorten travel times for everyone else. Each memeber of this electic bunch has their own troubles, past or present, and when they take a job that will put them out in the cold of open space (bar the occasional supply stop) for a standard year, many of those troubles will catch up to them or explode in their faces. Pirates, crazy fringe groups, internal dissaggrements, moral conundrums and unexpected revelations await them on their journey. As they struggle to not just survive, but thrive, they will have to grow to overcome all their challenges.
Well, after a couple of stabs at it, that’s the best I can do for now. As I said, I can see why the back-of-the-book sort of description couldn’t do the book justice. Now, onto the review itself!
The first thing I have to say about the novel is…oh the characters. Oh my goodness, the characters. The amazingly strong, incredibly well written characters coming out your ears like you wouldn’t believe. The author has a genuine gift for writing engaging characters, and I loved every single one of them. Hell, I even loved to hate the occasional bad guy, as few as those were. Every single member of the eclectic cast is absolutely stunning in development and interaction. They all feel real, they all have personal motivations, conflicts, growth, you name it. This novel could be, and honestly probably should be, the textbook example of how to write amazing characters. Full Stop. They are just that good. I’m rarely in awe of any writer, but I’m legitimately in awe of Becky Chamers’ abilities with characterization. Which means even more coming from me than most authors, as it tends to be my own best area as well. I have a feeling I’m going to be studying this novel, in detail, in order to improve my own writing. The characterization is just that good.
The setting! The setting isn’t quite as strong as the characters, but that’s somewhat like saying that a smaller chocolate chip cookie isn’t as amazing as a larger chocolate chip cookie. The setting is still exceptional, with some genuinely alien sort of aliens, not just humans with pointy ears. Add in fascinating worlds, and a smattering of clever cultures/ideas, and I really wanted a chance to look deeper. In fact, the only complaint I have about the setting, was that it teases so much more than the reader ever got to see. I wanted more, I wanted to dive into full on descriptions of places and cultures and things and stuff and and and…yeah. You get the idea.
Now for the area that is the book’s only flaw, the only thing keeping me from giving it a full 10/10. This was the section hardest to write, by far, because the problem isn’t even really a flaw, per se. Which means I hate pointing it out as the weakest aspect of the book. Particularly as that weakness was the result of the amazing focus on characters, and I wouldn’t trade improvement here for any loss to that incredible characterization for any reason, ever. So what’s the slightly weaker point? The plot. Not the day-to-day plots the characters find themselves it, but the overarching climactic end-of-the-book plot.
Overall, the focus on characters and their individual growth within the novel left a very slight lack of overall epic plot. There is an overall plot, and it’s pretty solid all on it’s own, it just gets every so slightly overshadowed by the characters and their stories. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing, and it really only proves that it’s almost impossible to achieve a perfect balance. Could a few tweaks have maybe been made, in a perfect world, to result in a plot that could truly hold up against the characters and setting? Maybe. But maybe not, too. In truth, I suspect the only real hope of fixing it would be to jump media types….
To be perfectly honest, this book should have been a TV series. This book is begging to be a TV series. This book, handled even half decently, would make Star Trek, Firefly, Stargate and Babalyon 5 look like they were lame, sick and dying if it were turned into a TV series. Of course, the reason for this is that the entire book is fairly episodic. It works, and given that I did something similar in my upcoming novel The Chronicles of Henry Harper, I’m not even slightly against it. It’s just that there is so much more here. A ton of visual description that could be much better handled on screen, a nearly built in episode structure…. I’m normally a proponent of the school of thought that, “The book is always better.” But in this case, a series made based on the book might just blow the novel away. Not because the novel isn’t amazing, but because of the character and character plot-line focuses running through the entire work. Anyway…I’ve gone off point a bit with my ramble. That it would make, potentially, the best Sci-fi TV series of all time, isn’t really relevant to a book review. So, final scores time!
Final Rating Breakdown:
Overall: 9.5/10 – Seriously, it deserves that .5 people, I’m not rounding down on this one.
Score Adjustments for Misc:
+.5 for seriously awesome amazing characters of sheer excellence.
Final Score: 10/10 – Ha! Take that 9.5!
Personal Recommendation: Read it. Unless you hate Space Operas, ’cause it’s a bit space operaish in places. Actually, even if you hate Space Operas, read it anyway. It’ll probably change your opinion on them. I cannot stress enough how good of a read this book was, it is probably going to make my “Top 10 Best Ever” list, alongside series like Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” and Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” I haven’t had to reshuffled that mental list in the better part of a decade.