After I finished Pandora's Star, I ordered this sequel online and began it soon after it arrived at my doorstep. This is significant, because while I do not adhere religiously to the general order of my to-read list, I try to follow it in good faith. I couldn't wait over a year to read Judas Unchained, so despite my general moratorium on buying books, I made an exception. And I'm glad I did. Judas Unchained is off the frelling chain!
As with my review for Pandora's Star, I'll try to keep this one essentially spoiler free. Both books are quite long, so I hope my reviews will help you decide whether they are worth the considerable investment of time. And that's all I'm going to say about the length.
Judas Unchained picks up where Pandora's Star left off, but the stakes are higher and the story much more intense. In the last book, MorningLightMountain successfully forced the evacuation of twenty-three Commonwealth worlds, now known as the Lost23. Now it's bootstrapping further into the Commonwealth and attacks forty-eight more planets. Though the Commonwealth just barely fends off a full defeat by the Prime forces, all but one of the worlds have to be evacuated as a result (so they're nicknamed the Second47). Ozzie's still searching along the Silfen paths for their "adult form," which he hopes will have Answers. And Paula Myo, who has spent 130 years pursuing the Guardians of Self-hood, is confronting the fact that their sworn enemy, the Starflyer, seems to be a real threat to the Commonwealth.
As I said in my review, I loved the revelation that the Starflyer is a real entity and not just a wacko conspiracy theory. Now the problem has become one of establishing a web of trust, since there is no way to know who works for the Starflyer. I was totally convinced one person (not saying who) would turn out to be a Starflyer agent, but I was wrong. That's what I like about these books. There are plenty of predictable elements (such as the identity of the Starflyer agent within Paula's old team), but just when you think you have everything figured out, Hamilton works in a little twist.
The Starflyer subplot, which actually kind of becomes the main plot in the second part of the book, is the most interesting part of the story, for me. We know MorningLightMountain is thinking nothing but bad thoughts about humanity, and we know it has to be stopped. Until much later in the book, we don't know anything about the Starflyer's motives, except that they are malicious, or its origins and nature. So I am disappointed with how Paula and Justine are so totally sidelined in this book. The former remains involved for the entire story, but we don't spend much time hovering over her shoulder, as it were, and for the last part of the book she is literally incapacitated by her sense of justice. Justine, on the other hand, while the target of an assassination attempt, seems to drop out of the book entirely by the time the climax comes round. That's a shame, because I loved Justine.
Of the remaining characters whose viewpoints the narrator follows, Mellanie would have to be my favourite. I love how Hamilton manages to portray these conflicting sides to her personality. All at once she's both a spoiled first-lifer brat who craves attention and notoriety, a keen reporter who wants to climb to the top (and isn't afraid of using her body to do it), a scared young woman who feels out of her depth, and a compassionate person trying to do the right thing. Her actions aren't always consistent, because sometimes one or another side seems to win out, and she'll be trying to save herself or do something heroic. For the most part, however, I think we see a solid trajectory from her role as insecure eye-candy in the beginning of Pandora's Star to the self-assured way she handles herself as she helps Ozzie commandeer the Charybdis. The romance between her and Orion is rather predictable, and honestly, it didn't do anything for me. But I guess it is a sensible way for Hamilton to tie up two loose ends at once.
Ozzie was also an interesting character, but he gets very self-righteous, especially toward the end. Hamilton touches on a moral dilemma that's actually more complicated than it seems: whether humanity should wipe out the Primes altogether. Everyone seems to agree that this is a last resort, but because they don't have the capability to re-establish the barrier around Dyson Alpha, Nigel eventually persuades the Commonwealth's War Cabinet to authorize genocide. Ozzie disagrees and, coincidentally, develops a cockamamie scheme to re-establish the barrier! So he steals a starship, initiating what might be the most boring hyperspace chase sequence in all of science fiction.
Before I explain that, let me first talk about the moral dilemma of committing genocide. Unfortunately, the villains in this book are entirely one-dimensional. I don't see how it could be otherwise with the way Hamilton has created the conflict between humanity and aliens who are just so alien that they don't regard any other life as having the right to exist. Nevertheless, it means that there is no room for negotiation or compromise, and there's really no way to sympathize with or pity MorningLightMountain. So on one level, genocide makes sense. Indeed, another reviewer makes a convincing case that containment is just a longer, slower death. I happen to disagree, for I do not share his pessimistic outlook on the Bose motile's mission to change MorningLightMountain from within. And ultimately, there may not be a practical difference between killing MorningLightMountain outright and imprisoning it for the next millions of years, but there is a moral difference. It's about demonstrating a respect for the diversity of life and maintaining that diversity, even if it means keeping that diversity contained. Besides, every species has an expiration date, even if it's measured in the billions of years. The only possible escape from corporeal stagnation that Hamilton offers is the vague notion of "transcendence," and who knows—maybe MorningLightMountain can achieve that inside the barrier!
And now back to my boredom. When I said that Judas Unchained is more intense than Pandora's Star, I meant it in two sense: the stakes are higher, and the action is more condensed. The previous book spent a lot of time developing side plots, and it was not clear until closer to the end how the Primes and the Starflyer would manifest as antagonists. In contrast, we know from the beginning of Judas Unchained that the Primes are going to kick humanity's ass, and the Starflyer is both real and incredibly difficult to fight. As a result, the narrative is a lot more focused on these two plots—though I did enjoy the occasional shout-out to minor events from the previous book, such as the inclusion of Lionwalker Eyre.
Unfortunately, both of the plots seem to slow down and drag during the climax. It's odd. There's an interstellar wormhole train pursuit, with an intense race to get to Far Away and prevent the Starflyer from escaping. But it seems to last forever. This is not a consequence of the book's length but of the way Hamilton structures the action sequences—I'm not sure if I would go as far as calling them padded, because the sequences themselves are short and sweet. However, the events that elapse between the Guardians and Sheldon's group deciding to work together and the climactic moment on Far Away are … convoluted.
Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoyed Judas Unchained—albeit not as much as I enjoyed Pandora's Star. There were several moments throughout the book where I giggled or otherwise reflected upon how awesome it felt to be reading something like this. Hamilton has the ability to make me excited about reading a story in the way that few books or authors do. And she does what good science-fiction authors should do, which is use science fiction to tell an interesting story (sometimes the authors tend to get hung-up on the "science fiction" thing and forget they're telling stories). With Hamilton, there's no worldbuilding, just his world, which we learn about as we experience it. So I'm looking forward to returning to the Commonwealth with his Void series, and to reading more of his books in general.
I'll be honest (or shall we say, realistic?) and admit that these books aren't going to enchant every reader of science-fiction. Without falling into the trap of the fallacies of "hard" and "soft" science fiction, Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained definitely embrace the "technobabble" aspects and tropes of the genre, and not everyone enjoys that. More importantly, there are a lot of characters, and even for an author as skilled as Hamilton, it's difficult to round them out sufficiently. Despite my focus of them in the reviews, I'd definitely characterize these books as more plot-driven than character-driven. So Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained aren't for everyone, but if you do like action-packed science-fiction stories about interstellar conflicts, weird alien mentalities, and wormhole-hopping, then you've got a winner here.