The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers’ first novel, was a tale of found family in the small confines of a spaceship. Its inclusive generosity and gentle reinvention of some very old space opera tropes made it something of a modern classic. An attractive debut—so attractive, in fact, that I was worried that Chambers’ next novel wouldn’t be able to live up to the promise of the first.
A Closed and Common Orbit is that novel. I may have been wrong to worry. In some ways, A Closed and Common Orbit is a completely different beast to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Where The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet has an ensemble cast, A Closed and Common Orbit focuses closely on two main characters, and where The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet takes place all in one single continuous strand of narrative time, A Closed and Common Orbit follows two narrative strands, one in the past and one in the present. But tonally, thematically, they’re very similar: they’re both novels about acceptance and belonging, families found and made, and building yourself a better future.
Lovelace used to be a ship’s AI. But now, due to catastrophic events beyond her control, she’s been installed in a synthetic (human) body. Her senses are more limited than she’s used to, and it’s freaking her out. Not to mention it’s illegal for an AI to pass as a citizen. Fortunately for her, she’s not alone, since Pepper, the engineer who helped install her in her current body, isn’t going to leave her to navigate her new circumstances alone. Pepper knows a little something about being thrown out alone into a world you barely understand: born Jane-23, a slave in a society of genetic engineers, she escaped and spent ten years living in a junkyard, where her only ally was the AI of a damaged spaceship.
A Closed and Common Orbit interleaves the story of Pepper’s adolescence with Lovelace—now called Sidra—and her journey towards self-acceptance and a place in a community where she’s valued as a person. It’s less comfortable a novel than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, in part because we see its characters react to some fucked-up circumstances. But it’s just as intensely hopeful as The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet: a book about belonging, about finding a place to stand. There aren’t enough books in this mould, for me. I’m really happy to have read another one.
Speaking of books about belonging. Heather Rose Jones’ Mother of Souls (Bella Books, forthcoming in late November) is the third novel in her Alpennia series, and the one in which she breaks most firmly from the 19th-century historical romance (with fantasy elements) mode that generally defined Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage. If Mother of Souls is a romance, it’s about the attraction between people and their intellectual ambitions, and their desire for a place to belong.
Serafina Talarico is from Rome, but her parents came from Ethiopia. All her life, she’s wanted to be able to use her mystical talents, to be able to manipulate the forces that she perceives. She didn’t find support for her talents in her unsatisfying marriage to a wealthy Italian scholar, and so she’s travelled to Alpennia, to join the circle of intellectual Margarit Sovitre, whose own mystical talents have been recognised by Alpennia’s queen. She takes lodgings with Luzie Valorin, a widowed music teacher and aspiring composer—and there discovers that Luzie, though she cannot perceive as Serafina does, can manipulate mystical forces through her musical compositions. They develop a sincere friendship (and have a temporary physical liaison). And when sorcery threatens to cut Alpennia off from the land-routes to the rest of Europe, it is Luzie’s talents for mystical composition and Serafina’s unparalleled perception that might provide a solution to the problem.
There are two other significant point of view characters to Mother of Souls, besides Serafina and Luzie: Margarit and Barbara, whom readers of the series thus far will recollect from previous volumes. They deal with social and political intrigue—Margarit in founding a college for women, Barbara in carrying out some discreet intelligence-gathering for her government—alongside Serafina and Luzie’s story of growth and self-acceptance.
Mother of Souls is very much a novel of character, measured in its pace and quiet in its focus. Jones has a tendency to strictly alternate her point-of-view characters, which occasionally leaves the narrative feeling a little rigid. She also tends to pass lightly over more, well, action-oriented incidents: as, for example, when Barbara is attacked while travelling and the reader is treated only to the aftermath, with Barbara’s injury and slow recovery. A less strict approach to alternating characters and more willingness to show violence—I do not usually advocate for more fictional violence, but here the aftermath alone is not quite enough, it has not previously been signalled, it feels orphaned from its context—would have made the novel a smoother experience.
On the other hand, Jones has a gifted hand with her characters. (And intellectual women forming communities are basically catnip to me in novels.) They’re all strongly drawn individuals, with complex internal lives and histories: Serafina dealing with her complicated feelings about heritage and belonging while also dealing with other people making assumptions about her, and dealing with the disappointment of not being able to be able to work mysteries, though she can see their affects; Luzie overcoming a life of essentially being told she can’t compose anything ambitious and learning to trust her own talent.
It’s a quiet book, not a flashy one. And Jones is ambitious in the kind of quiet stories she’s choosing to tell: it is an unusual choice in a fantasy novel to have the politics and sorcery, although an integral part of the story, come second (not co-equal with, but very definitely second) to character growth and development. Mother of Souls is an interesting novel, and a compelling one. It shows Jones growing as a writer, and I, for one, remain eager to see what stories she tells next.