Faulkner was right. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The best fiction—and especially the best second-world fantasy—recognizes that. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire does it perhaps better than any other series. The events of the series are all driven by things that happened twenty years prior. There’s no reason The Dark Between the Stars inherently can’t work for a reader who hasn’t read The Saga of Seven Suns, the series set twenty years prior. But a good third of the book is bogged down by a lot of what-this-character-has-been-up-to-for-the-past-15-years.
And there are a lot of characters. There are a few ways to approach an epic fantasy/space opera. An author can start the story with a group of characters in the same place and let things splinter from there (e.g., The Wheel of Time). An author can concentrate a few major, concurrent storylines (e.g., The Stormlight Archive). Or an author can just say fuck it and start with loads and loads of characters whose storylines only interact down the line. Anderson chooses the third option so we hear what lots of people have been up to.
Lots of people. There are, I think, upwards of 30 POV characters, which led to me spending much of early chapters trying to figure out who exactly the POV character is and what the heck they’re up to. Which I had to do very quickly, because the chapters are extremely short. Like Seven Pillars of Wisdom short. At 672 hardcover pages, Anderson blows through 139 chapters at less than 5 pages per chapter. I appreciate a quick clip, but that is pushing it. It makes for a very different reading experience than, say, The Goblin Emperor, which is entirely from the view of a single character and has chapters that vary wildly in length.
None of this would work absent Anderson’s obvious skill. He can and does establish character and setting quickly. The seemingly disparate plot threads wind up cunningly tied together. The time invested in the characters and the relative tranquility during the slow start adds emotional heft to the latter action. There is a wonderful respect for imagined intergalactic industry, from hydrogen sky mining on gas giants to lava planet mining, without getting bogged down in the minutiae of either the science or the economics.
I won’t try to do justice to the characters. There are too many to address, and I could find something—something kind even!—to say about most to all of them. There are two main allied races, humans and Ildirans, with frequent mentions and infrequent appearances of the antagonists from the prior series. The humans are still Earth-centric, although the Moon is now an asteroid belt thanks to events from 20 years before and the human Confederation leadership is now based on a forested planet called Theron. The sentient forest of “world trees” on Theron produces human “green priests” who can communicate with and through the trees, allowing instantaneous interstellar communication via treeling-bearing green priests. (And sometimes the world trees launch into orbit to serve as planetary defense battleships. That is awesome.) The Ildirans are a humanoid race strongly bound by their quasi-telepathic theism that hail from a world with seven suns (if a three-body problem is bad how bad is a seven-body problem?), with resulting pathological fears of being alone and the darkness. Prominently featured are the human-Ildiran children of the Ildiran Mage-Imperator, who possess telepathic powers. The new threat that arises (as it must now, else the series would be set later), is an entropic force that causes ship system failures, can create hexagonal tube battleships, and attacks the Ildirans through the theism. The Shana Rei, the second coolest cloud of dust after the Nebula awards and the titular dark between the stars, ally themselves with insectoid robots. That’s right. Bugbots. As designed by insectoid aliens (of course there are (sadly offscreen) insectoid aliens, because what other kind of evil aliens are you going to have, spinning octupedal aliens? That would be crazy.). It’s somewhat depressing that the above was a bit funner to write about than read.
All in all? I’m not blown away, but it’s cool. It makes me want to read more science fiction, a genre I’m woefully ill-read in (although I think I’m woefully ill-read in all genres, because have you ever seen a library? There are SO MANY BOOKS.). It’s probably a pretty good illustration for a literary-pulp divide I want to talk about in the future at great length, because it tends to be pretty good at the components of the latter and distinctly weaker at the components of the former. It suffers, as I hope I’ve shown, from being a follow-on series. It also suffers some from being the opening volume in a series. Not that I would reflexively ding a book 1 for leaving things untied—I’m an unabashed aficionado and advocate of the Very Long Series—but things untied must be balanced against a deposited burning desire to continue. I enjoyed it, but I haven’t yet rushed out (to Internet Explorer, alt-tab y’all) and bought Book 2 of the Saga of Shadows Trilogy, Blood of the Cosmos, which was released on June 2.