Review: A Closed And Common Orbit

After I was so blown away by A Psalm for the Wild-Built I decided to go back To Beck Chambers’s Wayfarers series and see if I was missing something. I didn’t re-read The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but I picked up the next in the series, A Closed and Common Orbit.

Yep, blown away again.

Common is a fun, interesting and engaging piece of SF. It’s a completely character-driven adventure story set in a textured and immersive setting. There’s a compelling theme of how families form even in the absence of biological relationships (or biology at all). It’s all great stuff but what blows me away is how deep and well constructed the whole thing is.

It is an adventure story, but there’s really no MacGuffin or inciting incident related to the adventure. It reads like the plot grows organically from the characters, their revealed history, and their developing relationships. I’m not hedging on the adventure story; this isn’t a story where the only stakes are the emotions of the characters. There are physical risks and consequences. But the characters make the stakes (emotional and physical). And every action they take is utterly believable based on what’s on the pages.

When I take the deeper dive and think about the whys and hows of the story I’m impressed by the intricacy of the character building. SF like Dune is applauded for its world building, but I often find the characters to be subordinate to that world. Chambers builds her setting and characters with the same level of depth and complexity.

It’s also a nice trick to write a book about family where none of the members of that family are capable of procreation. A point that’s never explicitly stated, but is utterly clear on reflection.

I also marvel at the writing. I was worried that I might throw out too many spoilers here because I’d really like to talk about how the characters seem to make much of the plot inevitable in the best ways. Then I tried to explain enough to spoil something and I realized that describing the plot details that show that magic is hard. It’s hard because Chambers has built a complex setting that doesn’t feel complex to me. She doles out just enough exposition to build the relevant world, but it all arrives as things the characters already know. Easy to say and hard to do. The story all felt so natural until I tried to lay it out front to back. Then I realized how many little telling details make the whole setting and plot cohere. It felt like trying to describe a place I’d just lived in for a while to someone who’d never been.

I’ve got a ton more I could say about this book – it’d be a fun book club meeting – but I’ll just mention how much of the book is two episodic, resonant, interleaved timelines that are each exciting in isolation and be done.

A must.

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