Time for the first review of the new year! For this occasion I’m reviewing “A Closed and Common Orbit” by Becky Chambers. Previously, I had made it a point never to review second books in a series or sequels, seeing it as not as useful to the average reader. However, as “A Closed and Common Orbit” is a standalone, only loosely connected to her previous book, “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” I decided the rule didn’t apply in this case. Now, on to the review proper!
So, the first things to mention about “A Closed and Common Orbit” is that, frankly, it isn’t a novel so much as it is a pair of tenuously connected novellas wrapped around each other. Chapters alternate between two entirely separate stories, and I have to admit I’m not a big fan. Mostly, it has to be said, not because either story is awful, but because the chapters are so ridiculously short that I would just be getting into the groove and flow of one story when I’d be abruptly forced to read the other for an equally short span. This was particularly unfortunate early in the book, as one of the two stories had a much stronger hook than the other and I kept wanting badly to skip back to the story with the stronger start. The result of this was that I struggled, a lot, to get through the first 1/3rd of the book. Once things got properly rolling in both stories the struggle went away and I got fully absorbed, but I never once stopped wishing that I could read the stories separately.
Having laid out the novel’s greatest flaw right up front, let me continue on to its greatest strength. For those of you who’ve read my review of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” you won’t be surprised that I fell in love with the characters of “A Closed and Common Orbit.” Sadly, I can’t say that any of the characters were quite as strong as the previous book and I must admit that there were a distressing number of two dimensional characters that I kept hoping would stop being boring. Thankfully, despite a bit of a slow start to their development, I can also say that the three major characters of the book are very much the exceptional quality I expected from Chambers. Pepper, Sidra, and Owl are unquestionably excellent, and the two A.I. of that trio (Sidra and Owl) are possibly the very best take on A.I. that I’ve ever seen. Sidra, in particular, is just about the only time I’ve ever seen a realistic A.I. point of view not suck. Even Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which was previously the best I’d seen in this regard, had some serious problems keeping an A.I. mind realistic. Sidra, on the other hand, manages to come across completely as a realistic take on the mind of an A.I., including the problems an A.I. intended for a ship would have adjusting to an android body. Ultimately, as with her previous book, the characters in Chambers’ “A Closed and Common Orbit” make the book come alive, driving desire to turn the pages and leaving sadness behind when you must part from them at the last flipping of a page.
The next strong bit is the setting. I’m happy to say that this is one area that has actually been improved between the two books. While the setting in “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” was very good, “A Closed and Common Orbit” continues right on expanding the alien cultures and environments of their shared universe. Where the first book provided a tantalizing brush over the surface, teasing so much more, this second work drops you planet side in a trade port, where you get a much more detailed glimpse into several communities and species. This, more than anything else, makes me hope Miss Chambers continues to write books in the universe, as there is clearly so much more depth of awesome to see here. Her work with this setting compares favorably to any of the classic sci-fi giants like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, and I desperately want to see more!
The plot…suffers from the same problem as the previous book, only more so. That is to say, there really isn’t a very strong central plot at all. Only, it’s more confusing than that, as one of the two intertwined novella actually has a very strong central plot, but it is, by far, the less engaging of the two stories. What I would consider the dominate novella between the two just sort of meanders around for a while, thinking interesting thoughts and developing interesting characters/settings, then sort of ends in an anti-climactic but heartwarming sort of…literary hug. Yeah, I know that sounds weird, but I don’t know a better way to put it. Much as with her first book, I’m left at the end happy I’ve read it, but wishing it was a T.V. series instead. Which, considering I don’t watch T.V., is a very odd sort of desire on my part.
Final Rating Breakdown:
Score Adjustments for Misc:
-1 for the format. Given my own penchant for unusual formats, I really hate to do this, but it was VERY distracting and lowered the overall quality of the book for me.
Final Score: 7/10
Personal Recommendation: While this book is inarguably (to me) much weaker than its predecessor, it is still such a large cut above the average that I give it a strong recommendation. In particular, fans of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” should give it a read, as they are almost certain to enjoy the way it expands on the universe. Also, Pepper, Sidra, and Owl are awesome, can’t stress that enough.