It would be wrong to suggest that I’d been worried about what was happening to Ravna and Pilgrim and their friends since finishing A Fire Upon the Deep in 1992. That book has an excellent ending, and the protagonists are left in a hopeful place. But almost twenty years and innumerable re-reads later, I must admit that I have been wondering how they were getting on.
So I was delighted with the news about The Children of the Sky, and simultaneously slightly apprehensive. Sometimes when an author comes back to a universe after a long gap, and when I’ve had a long time to re-read the original book and think about it, a sequel won’t feel as if it fits properly. However, in this case I need not have worried. The Children of the Sky fits seamlessly into A Fire Upon the Deep, and to prove it I’ve just read them both again back to back.
It’s a direct sequel of the kind that might possibly stand alone—it’s impossible for me to tell. But what I can tell is that it is absolutely full of spoilers for A Fire Upon the Deep, in the way of direct sequels. So the rest of this review, while containing only tantalising review-type hints about Children of the Sky will assume that you’ve read A Fire Upon the Deep. If you haven’t read A Fire Upon the Deep, what are you waiting for?
So, at the end of A Fire Upon the Deep, Ravna is the only adult human on Tines World, but there are Johanna and Jeffri and 150 Straumer children in coldsleep that she’s about to thaw. Greenstalk is the only skroderider, and she’s off in the tropical seas. Tines World has just been cast into the Slowness, stranding the fleet of the Blight lightyears away. Flenser and Steel have been defeated. Blueshell and Pham have saved everyone….
There are things about The Children of the Sky that make me want to jump up and down with delight. Scriber’s brother! Skrodelings! Woodcarver! There are things I’d never have guessed which are just perfect—of course the Straumer children want to believe their parents were the good guys. Of course they have trouble with the level of automation available. Of course Ravna isn’t trained for what she’s trying to do. Of course trying to advance your tech level is going to come up with some weird results.
This is a smaller scale story than A Fire Upon the Deep, but it’s still examining some big questions—and the biggest is the question of identity. What does “I” mean, when that’s revisable? What does it mean to be a distributed intelligence? There’s deeper exploration of the tines here, and it’s all fascinating. The choirs of the tropics were given a throwaway mention, here we find out all about them. What does it mean to have greater than human level intelligence without really being a person? And what does it mean to change your mind when you can literally change who you are by judicious broodkenning? And can you get back to who you used to be after you have lost parts of yourself?
There are plots and betrayals and hairsbreath escapes, there’s advancing technology, there’s still the threat of the Blight out there even if not everyone wants to believe it. This is a lovely book and I love it.
And yet, I am slightly disappointed, even if it feels churlish to say so. This is a smaller scale story, and it’s one story. It’s a good book, but it isn’t worldshaking. I enjoyed the book much more the second time through when I didn’t have that expectation. This is one story about Ravna and Johanna and Jeffri and the Tines, and it’s a lot of fun with things to make you think. You can’t really expect more than that. But twice in this setting, Vinge has done something worldshaking, and I was hoping for that again.
Even with that slight disappointment, it’s still one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.