(2009) Gary Gibson, Tor (UK), £17.99, pbk, 407 pp, ISBN 978-0-230-70680-4
(2013 reprint) Gary Gibson, Tor (UK), £8.99 / Can$15.99, pbk, 568 pp, ISBN 978-1-447-22410-5
This space opera follows directly on from Stealing Light (see reviews here and here). Consequently you have to read that novel to understand what is going on or otherwise be sure to pay attention so as to pick quite a few things up in this novel's first half.
Dakota and Corso find themselves with amnesia far from Consortium (human) space, and prisoners of the Bandati (a winged alien species). As Dakota's memories return we discover that she had been using her machine-head abilities to interface with an ancient abandoned spacecraft of a precursor species that has faster-than-light (FTL) capability. That craft had been destroyed (see Stealing Light) but it now appears that the Bandati have discovered another ancient craft and Dakota is being coerced to use her abilities to interface with that.
Meanwhile the Soal (the fishlike species that FTL transport everyone about the spiral arm in vast moon-sized craft) don't like the idea that junior species may soon break their transport monopoly. And there is a reason for this other than commercial dominance: the FTL drive can be used as a weapon to detonate stars (hence the 'nova' in Nova War) and that the Shoal themselves are at war with another species from the neighbouring spiral arm. Quite simply the fate of the Galaxy depends on what happens, and humanity is just an insignificant part of all this.
In my last review I likened Stealing Light as sitting somewhere between Reynolds' and Banks' space opera: 'somewhere' being the operative word as to be fair Gibson is not quite up there (yet), albeit arguably within a stone's throw. Gibson certainly has the scale and concepts of these two writers but – if I am not being too critical – has not caught their ability for characterization and pacing (some parts of Gibson's narrative drag while others are rushed) or sense of appropriateness. Some elements seemed to be there for effect and not logic: an early example in the story is having a restaurant in the gullet of a giant, living worm capable of swallowing dinners if sufficiently agitated, which was a neat idea, but 'really?'! For some this might hinder the suspense of belief needed to fully enjoy high-powered, hard SF space opera. Of course others might get off on 'the joke'.
Gibson's 'Shoal sequence' (of which this is the second book) does have the feel of epic space opera: it is in one sense a sort of gritty, early 21st century, epic reminiscent in scope of Larry Niven's 1970s 'Known Space' sequence. Yet unlike Reynolds, Banks, or even Niven, who all wrote stand-alone novels albeit within the same universe (and with occasionally the same characters), Nova War and Stealing Light are very much a continuation of the same story. For readers of the hardbacks, with a year in between, the catch-up required reading the second disrupts the overall story. However this is a short-lived criticism as with the paperbacks of both (to be shortly) available side by side in bookshops (or from on-line sellers) readers will be able to read the novels in this sequence in reasonably quick succession and so find that they have an engrossing epic on their hands. Nova War ends at an appropriate point in the story with all the tactical plot elements tidied up, but with much to be done on the strategic, story-arc level but our protagonists are well-placed to take these forward in the next novel. Readers will be keen to see what happens next.
Jumping ahead from when this first novel came out to 2013 and Tor have reprinted all of Gary Gibson's novels (to date). This reprinting includes the 'Shoal' trilogy of which this novel is the second. When this trilogy first came out we had to wait a year for the next one and this was just enough time for memory of the intricate set-up to begin to fade. Today, you can get all three together and read them over a shorter period of time and this can only add enjoyment.
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