Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Shit just got real!
OK, so remember how Brin left off Brightness Reef on a cliffhanger? Jophur ship had just landed above the returned Rothen vessel, totally changing the balance of power on Jijo. Sara and the starfaring Stranger, whom we now know to be Emerson from the Streaker escaped the zealots and have fallen in with a group horse-riding human women and urs. Dwer and Rety are stuck on a mad robot. Oh, and Alvin and his comrades sunk to the bottom of the ocean, where they were rescued by mechanical crustaceans.
I kind of suspected that Alvin's rescuers would be Streaker dolphins. It was very neat and tidy. Indeed, Brin wastes no time cutting to the chase and revealing all of this to us. And it turns out the Streaker has been through a lot in the interim—which is a great relief to me, because it has been nearly a year since I read Startide Rising, and I could barely remember who Emerson was, let alone how he got separated from the ship (turns out it happened between books). Much worse for wear, Streaker just so happened to find refuge in Jijo's oceans. And then the Jophur showed up.
I already discussed my fascination with the traeki in my review of Brightness Reef, so I'll keep this brief. The Jophur are easily the best part of this book. They combine the intriguing properties of the traeki with the one thing that the Uplift books often lack: a convincing villain. (The Gubru were OK in The Uplift War, but I couldn't stop thinking of them as giant dodos, and that ruined them for me. In contrast, the Jophur are rather unlike anything on Earth. They are different, and that is cool.) Watching Asx lose itself/themselves to the master ring and become Ewasx saddened me; I was glad his rings managed to rebel once in a while. Even better was getting a glimpse at the command structure of the Jophur vessel, as well as its potential goals regarding Jijo and recovering the Streaker. The fact that the Jophur patently just didn't care about anyone, and in fact were actively hostile to the g'Keks, made them great villains. They were willing to raise towns and destroy the sooners' holy artifact, the Egg. I love a good bad guy willing to follow through on threats!
So Infinity's Shore has a great bad guy. What about the matching good guys? Our protagonists are a melange of the new and the old. Returning from Startide Rising are some old friends, including Gillian, the Niss machine, and Kaa. (For some reason my brain always imagines AIs speaking in the voice of Morgan Freeman, so I found the Niss machine very endearing.) I honestly don't remember many of my feelings toward Gillian, Kaa, et al, so I gave them the benefit of a doubt. And really, none of them are as important to the plot as the protagonists who return from Brightness Reef: Dwer, Sara, Lark, Alvin, etc. These characters are the freshest in our minds, and some of them are genuinely better.
Just as the dolphins lurking at the bottom of the ocean were rather predictable, I'm pretty sure Brin couldn't have made the mutual attraction between Lark and Ling any more obvious except by beginning their names with the same le—oh. I see what you did there! Very clever, Mr. Brin. Still, Infinity's Shore isn't a romance, and the love between 2 Ls blossoms while they are prisoner aboard a Jophur ship. It's sweet, and it happens amid action scenes and some moody meditation on Lark's part about his feelings, as a voluntary extinctionist heretic, about falling in love and possibly wanting children. Moody though it may be, however, it serves a real purpose: change has come to Jijo, and no one is going to be the same.
I suppose you could call this book "apocalyptic" in the sense that the Sacred Scrolls of the Jijoan sooners have always predicted a "Judgement Day" from above. Now it's come, and everything is going to hell, because you know what? When starships descend from on high, suddenly all those sacred stanzas just don't quite prepare you for the sheer pants-soiling, hoof-tripping, wheel-blocking, claw-catching terror of the moment. It is no big surprise that most people, despite their nominal devotion to the Scrolls, prefer not to react hastily and begin destroying signs of civilization. Similarly, it is no big surprise that a small portion of people believe the opposite. So even as a powerful interstellar force threatens all the sooners on Jijo, we see their society begin to fracture, their precious Commons peace falling apart.
These politics never quite take centre stage. We don't learn much about how the sooners will react to these events until the very end of the book, and that's fine. This isn't a work of political intrigue; it's more a quick-and-dirty action-adventure. Though Sara and Lark are both exposed to the fallout from some of the more extreme groups, they also have their own, more immediate problems to resolve, so they are on the fringe of these politics. Sara manages to fall in with Uriel, the renowned urrish smith who had the foresight to build an analog computer, while Lark and Ling, as I mentioned above, make out on a Jophur ship. It's all good.
Because unlike Brightness Reef, which tended to flounder and waver until the last hundred pages, Infinity's Shore constantly feels like it is building toward something. Some of the foreshadowing and hints are annoying, even trite—I'm not a fan of the idea that Buyur somehow planned all this a million years ago. That being said, Brin has done a good job creating a tantalizing 150-million-year backstory, and I am now excited about reading Heaven's Reach and finally learning what's going on (again, if that doesn't happen, don't spoil it for me). So even with a few flaws, the fact that this book manages to excite me and make me eager for its sequel is great, especially when it's the middle book in a trilogy.
Stepping back for a moment, even the story in this book builds to an epic conclusion. We know there has to be some kind of showdown between the Streaker and the Jophur ship, and Brin doesn't disappoint us. He finally seems to have a grasp on this whole multiple, shifting perspectives narration, and in those last critical chapters, he moves us effortlessly among perspectives as the action unfolds. Dwer finds himself taking an unscheduled trip in a hot-air balloon and ends up in an unexpected reunion with guess who (saw that one coming). Streaker heads off on a suicide mission to pull the Jophur away from Jijo. Will they escape? Will they finally find sanctuary and succour? Will they—
Well, damn. David Brin ended on a cliffhanger. Again. You know what? Fine then. If he can end on a cliffhanger, so can I. Final verdict on Infinity's Shore is…
Stay tuned at the end of the week for my review of Heaven's Reach and the exciting conclusion to this review of Infinity's Shore!*
*(Disclaimer: Conclusion may not contain 100% fresh excitement. Please ask your physician if artificial excitement is right for you. If your excitement lasts for longer than four hours, call your doctor.)